Does Santa Barbara hate food trucks?

For the past eight years the Burger Bus has parked in lots across Santa Barbara and Goleta, serving up juicy burgers on ciabatta buns along with a side of fried pickles. But last month, the Burger Bus left town for Denver. There were several reasons for the move, but one was the inability to make a living in this town, said Burger Bus owner Michael Gardner.

“Nobody can work within the parameters they’re proposing,” said Gardner, referring to new rules currently being debated by the city council. “It’s not the reason we’re leaving, but it made it easier to leave.”

The proposed regulations include restricted business hours, lack of access to certain parts of Santa Barbara, and size and space restrictions.

While food trucks have become a staple of major cities across America, they’re hard to come by in Santa Barbara. That’s left some folks wondering why, including Curious Coast questioner (and KCRW staffer Danny Sway) who asked it this way:

“Why does the city of Santa Barbara hate food trucks?”

I put the question to Randy Rowse, one of three Santa Barbara council members who has been working on updating Santa Barbara’s municipal code, which will address the issue of food trucks.

“It’s not a matter of hate and it’s not a matter of like, it’s a matter of making things as fair and equitable as possible,” said Rowse.

Council member Randy Rowse. (Photo: Ted Mills)

Rowse is the owner of Paradise Cafe on Anacapa and Ortega, and is sensitive to the business needs of brick and mortar restaurants and other retail stores.

Council member Cathy Murillo, who is running for mayor this year, likes the idea of making the city more amenable to food trucks. She said she wants to revitalize downtown State Street and reverse the low occupancy rate. Food trucks can help, she said, but there must be a balance between the trucks and restaurants.

Council member Cathy Murillo. (Photo: Ted Mills)

“A music festival, popup art, popup eateries might be the way to go,” she said. “Entertainment at night, closing off State Street–food trucks might be a part of that…I’m hoping that our mobile vending regulations will help create a vibrant downtown.”

However, the current problem is not that the city has anti-food truck ordinances on the books, but that it has absolutely nothing about food trucks, period.

Right now, there are two sections of the Santa Barbara municipal code regarding mobile food vending, which includes food carts and sidewalk vendors. Title 5.32 makes it illegal “To peddle or solicit on or in any street within the City” (Farmer’s markets are exempt). Title 28 contains all of the city’s zoning ordinances and currently does not even mention food trucks, but the proposed new language delineates what trucks can do on private property.

Food trucks have existed in a grey area. It is technically illegal for a food truck to operate on both private property or on the street. Yet, because these laws are only enforced if there’s a complaint, the city has turned a blind eye to the majority of trucks. If a property owner wants a truck to sit in its parking lot, everybody’s happy. If a truck pops up unannounced, then there may be problems.

At eight years, the Burger Bus became one of the longest surviving food trucks in Santa Barbara. (Photo: myfoodtoday.wordpress.com)

As currently proposed, there are a few things in the new regulations that have raised the ire of current and former food vendors:

  • Hours of operation may only be between 9 am and 7 pm for street food trucks, although for private property there are no limits
  • A truck may only operate for four hours total on private property, one hour on the street
  • A truck can only operate on a certain private property for 90 days out of the year
  • There must be a 500 ft. buffer between other food trucks on private property. And street trucks may not park within 500 ft. of schools.
  • Street-parked vendors may not park on streets along the Milpas and State Street corridors, or within downtown’s El Pueblo Viejo historical district.

See the full proposed changes here.

For Murillo, these new regulations will give food trucks the opportunity to operate legally. Truck owners have business licenses from the city and they have gone through the arduous County Health regulations, she said, so they should be treated by the city as legitimate, not lumped in the same category as a fruit peddler.

However, the draft is not a done deal. The council invites the public to voice their opinions on Tuesday, July 11.

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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.