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Rise of the food trucks

The Santa Cruz taco truck, parked on the corner of Lakeville and East Washington streets, attracts a large crowd of diners after 9 p.m., when most restaurants in town have closed.

Scott Manchester/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.

In the simmering heat of Monday evening's dinner rush, at the parking lot of Craftsman's on East Washington and Lakeville Streets, the Taqueria Santa Cruz taco truck bustled as a line of people waited patiently for their food. Despite the business only being open for a few moments, cars pulled up and people streamed out to wait for the well-known tacos.

As the only permanent, full-fledged food truck operating in town, owner Roy Cabrera enjoys a unique hold on the relatively untapped mobile food purveyor market — something that could soon change as more vendors eye the Petaluma market.

“There's always going to be competition, whether it's restaurants or more food trucks coming to town,” said the 26-year-old entrepreneur. “But you can't let it affect what you do. You just have to focus on your business and being a part of the community.”

Across the county, food trucks and carts are becoming increasingly popular, thanks to their lower overhead costs and increased flexibility compared to conventional “brick-and-mortar” restaurants. These restaurants-on-wheels serve a variety of food, from hot dogs to tacos. In Petaluma, the desire to come to town is high.

“I get at least one to two calls a week from people wanting to come into town and set up their food trucks at a location,” said Joe Garcia, the Petaluma Police Department's code enforcement officer who oversees the licensing of food trucks and carts within city limits.

But just because people want to come to Petaluma and sell their culinary creations from a truck instead of a restaurant, doesn't mean that it's easy to do. When former certified executive chef and Culinary Institute of America educator Brenda Anderson decided to move out of corporate cooking and open her own gourmet food truck in Petaluma, she quickly discovered she was facing a pricey and uphill battle.

“To do it right in this town, you really have to have your stuff together,” she said. “It takes a lot of guts, but Petaluma has been very receptive to my ideas and I'm doing it.”

Anderson estimates that bringing her gourmet food truck to Petaluma, which she envisions serving a seasonal menu of lunchtime fares including local and organic meats and a variety of Asian and Latin cuisine, is going to cost her upwards of $70,000.

“There's a lot more that goes into it than people think,” she said. “You have to get a working truck, get all your permitting, be properly trained and licensed and carry the right insurance policies.”

Cabrera said that from the time he started his paperwork to the time he opened, it took a lengthy eight months to complete every step of the process.

“People think you can just get a food truck and start making money,” said Cabrera, who began working in Petaluma in 2004 with his uncle, at the young age of 17. “But they don't understand the 18-hour days and the massive amounts of paperwork it takes to do it right.”

For those wanting to run their own food truck or cart in Petaluma, Garcia said there are several permits that must be obtained. On top of needing a business license from the city, prospective vendors must also obtain food handler's certification — called ServSafe — from the state and a permit from the county to sell food. They must also obtain a home base restaurant, called a “commissary,” where the truck owners can store and clean their equipment.

“If you're looking to set up a permanent location, like the Santa Cruz guys, you've got to find a location with restrooms within 200 feet for employees to wash their hands, an adequate parking space, and conform to all the city's zoning regulations,” said Garcia. “In my time here, the Santa Cruz truck is the only one to successfully make it through the entire process.”

According to the Sonoma County Environmental Health and Safety Division, there are currently 128 mobile food service permits in the county, 14 of which belong to Petaluma vendors. Christine Sosko, county environmental health and safety director, said that three of the permits are for carts and 11 are for trucks or trailers — though she added that not all of the trucks operate within city limits.

While that may sound like a lot, the majority of mobile food vendors in Petaluma operate simple carts, like Tim O'Hara, owner of Papa's Hot Dogs. O'Hara has been operating a hotdog cart outside city limits for several years and recently moved his business into Petaluma.

“Things have picked up for me a lot,” he said.

In fact, O'Hara recently purchased a second cart and is in the process of building a third. His two grown daughters are planning to operate the carts once they are ready and permitted.

While the desire of vendors to come to town may be strong, Ingrid Alverde, the city's economic development manager, said that Petaluma currently is not actively recruiting this type of business.

“It's not on our radar at this point,” she said. “We don't know the pros and cons. Obviously, anything that attracts people to Petaluma is a good thing, but if there's tension from other restaurants or businesses, or public-right-of-way issues, we don't want that either.”

Garcia said that he does receive a lot of complaints about people operating illegally within the city. “It often happens at night and they are gone by the time we get there,” he said. “If we do catch them, we tell them to close down until they get the proper permits.”

Onita Pellegrini, executive director of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, said that she is unaware of any issues that standard restaurants have with local food trucks. “It's a different clientele, so we aren't really running into issues that I've heard about,” she said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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