Although we are sympathetic to the concerns of unfair competition raised by some Menlo Park restaurant owners, we do not think any of these establishments will be irreparably harmed if the city permits eight to 12 food trucks to set up shop for a few hours once a week in the Caltrain parking lot.
If the Off the Grid organization, which represents the truck owners and is applying for a one-year permit, is to be believed, the trucks will clean up after themselves, and although there will be music and generators running, the organization says that neither is likely to be loud enough to bother nearby residents or businesses. The group also promises to provide lighting and up to 200 chairs for customers.
More worrisome for some restaurants is losing their customers to trucks that have nowhere near the expenses (rent, taxes, a large payroll) that brick-and-mortar restaurants do, but that will not be a concern of the Planning Commission. Certainly there will be more choices for anyone looking for a dining option on Wednesday night, but of those, how many want to sit outside in a folding chair at the train station rather than enjoy a much more comfortable setting inside a local restaurant? We don't think the food trucks can compete for the prime customers who have decided to eat out in a downtown restaurant.
Instead, the trucks are more likely to attract a younger crowd that is looking for a no-frills quick bite at a bargain price. Fast food from a truck might be top quality, but we doubt that good customers will abandon white-tablecloth restaurants downtown very often to stand in line at a food truck.
Even so, there are questions about fitting such a large group of trucks into a rather small space at the Caltrain lot near Ravenswood Avenue. Four or five trucks might be better, at least to start. Sanitary facilities should be part of any deal, and while Off the Grid promises to skip alcohol and clean up at the end of the evening, the city should enforce that promise with a revokable permit. And the same should go for the low noise levels promised, as loud music and generators could become intrusive to nearby residents.
Off the Grid clearly has been successful at managing various locations from San Francisco to Hayward where its member trucks can set up and do business for a short period. Spokesman Ben Himlan said Menlo Park became an option because the location is "highly underutilized."
To get a sense of how the neighborhood felt about food trucks, Off the Grid mailed out notices in November and December, with the first announcing a public hearing at the Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 13. Some responses were critical of the idea, and other writers did not understand that the trucks will clean up the area before they leave and that the noise impact will be minimal.
It may be a surprise to some residents, but food trucks are already operating in the parking lot at the Willows Market at the invitation of the owner.
Off the Grid is seeking approval for a year-long permit at the Caltrain parking lot site. But just to be sure there are no misunderstandings, the city should approve a shorter time-frame and fewer trucks to make sure this new dining phenomenon keeps its promises and works smoothly with the surrounding neighborhood. That way local restaurants can assess if the trucks truly ruin their Wednesday business, and the neighbors will be able to tell if noise or other issues are unbearable.