What’s up, Sacramento food truck?

A year after the craze hit Sacramento, City Hall still hitting the brakes

Chris Jarosz, Joelle Dennis and Leila Mann (left to right) of Wicked ’Wich food truck, which launched this past year and is one of the region’s more successful food trucks—this despite an unchanged and, some say, unfair city ordinance.

Chris Jarosz, Joelle Dennis and Leila Mann (left to right) of Wicked ’Wich food truck, which launched this past year and is one of the region’s more successful food trucks—this despite an unchanged and, some say, unfair city ordinance.

Photo by Wes Davis

The fourth SactoMoFo mobile-food festival parks Saturday, April 21, under the freeway at X and Sixth streets; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; www.sactomofo.com.

Sacramento’s mobile-food community celebrates an anniversary this week: the nearly one-year benchmark since the city’s original two “gourmet” food trucks, trendy across the nation, finally converged on the local scene.

It’s been a year—and yet officials still haven’t addressed city laws that many argue restrict mobile-food vending from becoming a huge business and economic boon, à la Los Angeles or Portland, Oregon.

Despite the status quo at City Hall, however, gourmet trucks are on the rise—although the overall number of mobile-food vendors in the region is down. Meanwhile, the food-truck biz has had to deal with all sorts of drama: unresolved tiffs with restaurant owners, hiccups abiding by (and skirting) the city’s mobile-food ordinance, a controversial bill at the state Legislature—and positive developments, such as going where supermarkets won’t and serving Sacramento’s food deserts.

It’s been a year. What the truck has changed?

“Nothing has changed” when it comes to the laws, noted Paul Somerhausen, of food-truck advocacy group SactoMoFo. Somerhausen helped organize the first SactoMoFo festival last year on April 30. The festival came as a result, he says, of six months of unsuccessful talks with the city to change its current mobile-food regulations, created in 2008 as Chapter 5.68 of the city code.

But last year’s SactoMoFo created a stir. Not only did upward of 10,000 people show up in Midtown’s Fremont Park, the event also even impressed several city council members, Somerhausen said. Its success led to a series of talks between restaurant owners, food-truck operators and city leaders.

But the talks eventually stalled. The city council postponed all three official hearings on its food-truck laws during the past year. Most recently, it canceled a meeting set for March 20, because of Assembly Bill 1678—a bill that would have prohibited mobile-food vendors statewide from selling near schools. But A.B. 1678 was scrapped on March 28, and the city recently scheduled a new food-truck hearing for May 8.

“Jay [Schenirer] likes the food trucks and wants to figure this out,” said Joe Devlin, Schenirer’s chief of staff. “[In talks so far] I don’t think anything has been resolved that has provided any clarity, but we want to move forward.” Schenirer heads the city’s Law and Legislation Committee, which will explore recasting current mobile-food laws.

SactoMoFo mobile-food festival founder Paul Somerhausen chows on some Mini Burger truck fare. SactoMoFo4 is this week.

Photo by Jerome Love

“At this point, all they’re doing is reaching out to the mobile-food community [and] getting input from the stakeholders,” said Maurice Chaney of the city’s Economic Development Department.

In 2010, 151 food trucks were permitted within the region, but today only 140 are currently registered, according to Mark Barcellos, a Sacramento County environmental-management-department supervisor. While this number seems high, it also includes seasonal operations such ice-cream vendors and catering trucks, plus the dozen or so local food trucks serving lunch on a regular basis, he said.

Most food-truck operators in the past have complained about the city’s “30-minute rule,” but in 2011, owners have found ways around the unique law.

“We don’t have to deal with the moving every half-hour too much right now,” said Davin Vculek, owner of Mini Burger. “We’ve kind of found some creative ways around that.”

For most of the week, Vculek says he parks his truck outside of city limits, where there are no rules. But when he does park in the central city, he stops with permission on state properties, which are exempt from city ordinances. Parking at locations such as the Department of Motor Vehicles or the State Board of Equalization is free with prior arrangement. The State Board of Equalization even requested Mini Burger and other trucks to serve there after its cafeteria unexpectedly closed.

La Mex, operating since 1998, also opened a new La Mex Taqueria restaurant last month, one of many trucks to go from mobile to brick-and-mortar. Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen also now does the food at the Republic Bar & Grill, while Mama Kim Cooks and Mini Burger both plan on opening brick-and-mortar locations soon. Additionally, Drewski’s and Mini Burger plan to launch second trucks this year. Mini Burger’s first truck will shift gears, turning into a “concept cuisine” truck serving gourmet tacos, such as Maine lobster tacos.

And, despite the so-called restrictive ordinance, all the trucks are apparently staying out of trouble with the law. According to Bob Rose, city of Sacramento’s code-enforcement manager, there were nine violations related to mobile-food vendors in 2010, only three in 2011 and none so far in 2012.

“At this juncture, our current staffing levels require us to handle mobile-food vending code enforcement activities on a complaint-basis only,” he told SN&R.

Perhaps this is because the trucks spend so much time in Roseville, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova, which have been “good and accommodating” to Sacramento’s food trucks, according to Somerhausen.

Somerhausen also said that while the city of Elk Grove has restrictive mobile-food laws, they’ve expressed an interest in changing them to make them more business friendly. According to current laws, food trucks in Elk Grove cannot sell past 2 p.m., nor can they stay in one place for more than 15 minutes.

Business owners in Roseville, meanwhile, are petitioning city officials to impose stricter food-truck rules like those already in place in Sacramento.

And the trucks are also serving the underserved in the region’s food deserts. Joshua Lurie-Terrell of SactoMoFo and food blog Yum Tacos (www.yumtacos.com) says that most of the trucks go to places with few other restaurants or food options.

Drewski’s owner Andrew Blaskovich says he takes pride in going to the “less-served areas” in town. “The places where we park, there’s not a whole lot of restaurants around, and that’s ideally where you want to be,” he said. “You don’t want to be next to 30 different restaurants, because no one wants that competition.

“I’m more of a lone wolf.”

Others, like Mini Burger’s Vculek, enjoy serving in high-density places in the central city. And that’s where mobile-food vendors still run into vocal opposition from the likes of restaurateur Randy Paragary and Mike Brown, owner of Midtown’s Capitol Dawg.

“I think the law was put into place for a purpose, and that law is being ignored by many of the food-truck owners currently, and has been ignored since the newer trucks came aboard early last year,” Brown told SN&R. “If anybody has shown irresponsibility up to this point, it’s the truckers.”

Whether it’s a matter of trucks disobeying the law, or a lack of enforcement, Brown said he just wants to see trucks be more “respectful” of restaurant owners and to follow the code.

“I don’t want restaurateurs or the politicians feeling like they’re wearing black hats for trying to protect their interests,” he said.

At the same time, mobile-food entrepreneurs are protecting their own. Almost a year since the original SactoMoFo festival, incarnation No. 4 rolls under the freeway near Southside Park this weekend. It boasts double the amount of Sacramento mobile-food vendors—more than a dozen this year, compared to last year’s six—in addition to even more out-of-town vendors, a beer garden and a stage for live music.

So, however slow the city goes in addressing mobile-food regulations in earnest, the community seems to be driving forward, pedal to the food-truck metal.