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Editorial: The food truck conundrum

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.

Comments

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Posted by Mrs.B
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2014 at 12:24 pm

This us a BAD idea, and should not be given a trial at all. We don't need more dining options in Menlo Park: there are plenty of them already and they are established businesses with all of the economic benefits such
enterprises bring the city. Where is the space for this food truck activity? Where is the parking? Where are the rest rooms? How can noise be minimal from this kind of activity? Is noise minimal from our outdoor summer art market food trucks? This is intrusive, messy and totally undesirable. Can this idea now!


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Posted by Jim
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 8, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Come on, Mrs. B! You're so close..say it...NOT IN MY BACKYARD..or front yard? There is no residence for nearly a mile who would care with express trains wizzing by spreading dust over the food. If you don't like it...don't go.


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Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm

"quick bite at a bargain price"

Evidently you write of what you've never experienced.

It's long lines for rather pricey bites.

On the other hand, your shorter time frame and fewer trucks recommendation is a sensible idea.


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Posted by Mr. B
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 8, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Wednesdays during summer: a crowd of newcomers to MP grab a bite at the trucks and then walk through downtown up to Fremont Park and listen to music.

The next week, they try a downtown restaurant that appealed to them, perhaps because the business was smart enough to greet them as they went by, or gave a sample, or just try to have a little curb appeal.

How simple is that?

Free market, baby. Winners win. Losers whine.


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Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I've picked up food from the trucks at Willows Market a couple times ... they're good, but overpriced given the food-truck ambiance. I usually want a sit-down restaurant for what they charge. Like the article said, I don't think they're a threat; if I want to eat at a proper restaurant, I'm not going to a food truck. I go to food trucks out of impulse, in order to get a really quick byte to eat. They're an alternative to fast food, not decent restaurants.


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Posted by TammyGee
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2014 at 1:41 pm

I'm a fan of food trucks just to spice things up around here. It's nice to have a diversity of choices for dining with the family and it's a fun, novel thing to do. Truth is we likely wouldn't go more than once a month in the summer and that might even be stretching it, but it's nice to show that as a city we're willing to try something that marks us just a bit as progressive.

Let's mix things up a bit. The trucks won't take place of the meals I have at Left Bank, Carpaccio, Juban, etc, but they might keep me home instead of heading to downtown Palo Alto where the dining options are much greater and more diverse.


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Posted by Marcy Magatelli
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 8, 2014 at 2:25 pm

1) do they have the same health dept. inspections as reg. restaurants? 2) who gets the sales tax, MP? Food trucks have served areas with no other options and where employees have short lunch breaks. I know this is a whole new era and these are more up-scale, but judging their viability based on 1 truck by Willows Mkt, a "no other option" location, is not sufficient to commit to a 1 yr contract. Has the Plan'g dept interviewed other towns with history & this group?


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Posted by Samia
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 8, 2014 at 4:21 pm

The food trucks at Willows Market seem to do quite well. And it's not just 1 food truck. It's up to 4 or 5 every Monday and sometimes a truck or two on Fridays too. When I was there last, in early December during the cold spell, there were still many customers in line braving the elements. If anything, the food truck experience at Willows Market shows there's plenty of demand in MP.

Also, the Willows Market food truck area is always clean and much quieter than all the commuter traffic driving through Menlo Park down Middlefield and Willow. (And who could possibly complain about additional noise right next to the Caltrain tracks!) It's a lovely, family-oriented experience and I'm grateful to Willows Market for understanding the popularity of food trucks around the Bay Area and bringing them to MP.

Like TammyGee said, additional trucks would only keep me away from downtown PA, which has many, many more enticing casual restaurants than Menlo Park.


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Posted by Smacking My Lips
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I for one would welcome the food trucks. It gives aspiring chefs a way to get their wares in front of the public where they might not otherwise get the chance, and the result is that the food scene in MP would be more competitive. Honestly, its gotten pretty stale around here. Is raising the bar such a bad idea?

In San Francisco I have eaten at some of the trucks that participate in OTG. The food has been good and its been a pleasure meeting some of these young entrepreneurs. I'd love to see this in downtown MP.


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Posted by Jason
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 8, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Place them Off The Grid, the food trucks want high visibility and density or else they don't want the location. don't be fooled by their name. They will pull downtown customers for sure. It's not about competition, It's about traffic and parking impact.


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Posted by Taloo
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 8, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Its a great idea. Menlo Park is a wonderful town and needs to stay relevant with young families. These food trucks will be nothing but terrific for the area.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by matt
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 8, 2014 at 7:51 pm

First the complaints about a few extra airplanes over 101 and now this. What a ridiculous editorial and non-issue.

what's next: "No Fun Of Any Kind"?


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Posted by Robert
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm

my comment is actually a few questions for whoever wrote the editorial do you own a restaurant? how would you describe irreparable harm? would having your catering business disappear within a 2 year period that directly correlated with the food truck expansion into all MP technology and business corridors? having reduced sales every Wednesday night 4xmonth or 48 times a year not from a competing business but an outside poacher setting up camp in an empty parking lot taking advantage of services I pay for with my taxes and fees? cutting my employees hours or eliminating shifts all together because of a lower business level? Please don't take my word for it ask the Burlingame restaurant owners how Off The Grid has helped them? why would any person build a brick and mortar restaurant when you can just buy a food truck and pull into any city or parking lot and set up shop this happens everyday in MP.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2014 at 12:38 pm

The summer before last Portola Valley arranged for food trucks to be available once a week at their city hall parking lot. I drove all the way out there with friends a couple times to enjoy their offerings. Were it not for the novelty, I probably would have eaten at home, as I do 95% of the time. Now, having the trucks near the CalTrain station will be far more convenient.
Rather than compete with MP restaurants, I think the food trucks may actually increase their sales. After all, the food trucks don't sell wine & beer, nor do they usually provide desserts. If I'm planning to be downtown for dinner at the food trucks, I'm more likely to stop at a restaurant beforehand for a glass of wine or beer or for coffee & dessert afterwards. Seems to me local retail can only benefit by attracting more people to the downtown in the evening. Likely, many of the folks attracted by the food trucks would be CALTRAIN riders who otherwise would be having dinner in their hometowns. This could be a really win for everyone and, in my opinion, should be given every chance of succeeding.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Another thought.
I remember that one of the problems with the Portola Valley food truck evenings was that once dinner was over, there was no place to go but home. In contrast, after having dinner at the food trucks, many folks will want to continue the evening with their friends or family and will gravitate to nearby places with outdoor seating. I predict that Cafe Borrone and Iberia will see more customers on Food Truck evenings, as will Cold Stone, Starbucks, and Foster Freeze(if it's still here by then). Probably the Guild will sell more movie tickets, Kepler's will sell more books, and Trader Joe's and Walgreens will see an uptick in sales as well.
I can't wait.


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Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Steve has a good point. If having similar businesses around hurt your own business - why are there such things as food courts? If people know there's many food options in an area, it's more likely that more people will show up, not knowing where they will go. Some may end up choosing the food trucks; some may unimpressed, and decide to upgrade to a sit-down restaurant. You need to get people to show up in the first place for them to be a customer.


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Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2014 at 5:37 pm

It'll be a mishmash and unbecoming to Menlo Park. We aren't the Willow Market area, nor other such places. Music, seating for 200? This will be like a carnival. We don't need it and we don't need it once per week. They've got 25 spots in the Bay Area, that's enough.


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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm

"Unbecoming to Menlo Park." What, is Menlo the new Downton Abbey?


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 9, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Norman is a perfect example of why downtown Menlo Park rolls up the sidewalks at 6 pm. Menlo Park, the city of "NO."


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Posted by bruno
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jan 9, 2014 at 6:29 pm

OK this whole food truck thing is over rated wait till one day will be out break because some eat at this food tucks some where and then people will stop eating this bad food who said food trucks people are chefs not even so stop saying they are inspiring chefs I live in menlo I love my city the it is I support my local restaurant not food trucks if you want theme go to the willows or take theme to belle haven on the other side I like my city clean , fresh air no noise and I am sure there is lots of us we don't need food trucks here this was bad planning


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Posted by leila
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2014 at 8:56 pm

[Post removed; posting under multiple names in a single thread is not allowed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Karl
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2014 at 11:35 pm

One question: Where do food truck chefs wash their hands?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 10, 2014 at 6:17 am

Karl:

in a sink on the truck.

Leila:

or should I say Bruno, you two sound the same, food poisoning doesn't last five days. You had something else.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by commuter
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2014 at 8:37 am

Where exactly would the trucks and the 200 chairs be placed?
What impact will this activity and space requirements have on us commuters and our ability to park our cars and get in/out of the parking lots? (I would prefer to walk but cannot for health reasons and the bus isn't there when needed,so don't go there).
What benefit is this to city coffers?
Is the CalTrain station zoned for this activity?
How could MP help existing businesses at the same time? The last thing that should happen is to further stress existing businesses who need to thrive every day to stay open.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2014 at 11:10 am

@commuter
The article answered some of your questions. Here are my best shots at the others:
"What impact will this activity and space requirements have on us commuters and our ability to park our cars and get in/out of the parking lots?'
As I understand it, the food trucks would show up in the late afternoon/evening after the train commuters parking around the station have started leaving. Parking for those coming to enjoy the food trucks is available under Kepler's if on-street parking fills up.

"What benefit is this to city coffers? "
I imagine the food trucks will collect sales tax, just like other restaurants so the city will similarly get some percentage of that sales tax. Please correct me if I'm wrong but I assume that's how state sales tax comes back to cities & counties.

"Is the CalTrain station zoned for this activity?"
I don't know the answer but I'm assuming the planning department wouldn't be granting a permit if it wasn't legal.

"How could MP help existing businesses at the same time?"
As I pointed out above, I believe the food trucks will help other businesses in the area by drawing more and different customers to Menlo Park, some of whom will go on to shop at other shops & restaurants after they've sampled the wares of the food trucks. And, having been introduced to MP, some of these new folks may come back again to these businesses in the future.

Of course we don't know that these benefits will accrue, which is why the permit is temporary. From the point of view of the food trucks, there's no guarantee that enough people will buy their food to make it worth their while either. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. That's how free enterprise is supposed to work.



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Posted by Curious
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Many of the questions/concerns can be answered by possibly going to one of the 25(!) other locations they do this at. I've been to both the Belmont and San Mateo ones and they work perfectly fine. The San Mateo one might be a better example regarding parking concerns with the smaller parking area. They are usually quite clean, not extremely noisy and people generally have a good time it seems.

For those worried about the other restaurants, I'm sure they'll be fine since I bet they don't receive much business on a Wednesday night anyway (especially in downtown MP at night, not exactly a hotspot). Are no other restaurants allowed then since they might also take business away from the current ones? Like many have mentioned, if you're worried about competition, then improve the product.

And for those complaining about noise and pollution. Just please stop. It's a train station already. You won't hear a single generator over the roar of a train passing through or the signals ringing.


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Posted by MP foodie
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2014 at 12:39 pm

There is enough business for all!
Quit complaining.... Food trucks have come a long way!
Try it- you might like it!


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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Concerns:

Where are the bathrooms? Porta-potties should be required.

No, commuters haven't moved many cars out by 5 & the trucks have use of the lot from 3:30-10. They get 90 minutes set-up time before the 5pm start. At 5:30 today, that lot was still more than 1/2 full.

Parking under Kepler's is supposed to be for patrons of that plaza - offices on higher floors, Barrone's, Kepler's, etc. It is not public parking.

Noise from generators isn't the issue - it's emissions.

And no, this won't take anything away from SC Ave & ECR restaurants. People who like to stand up or sit on folding chairs while eating will go to OtG & other people who like sitting at a table won't go there anyway. Depending on the food, it might get some takeout business.

Of course these trucks are popular at the Belmont train station- there's nothing else around except Panda Express or whatever else is in the Safeway center. Maybe Marvin Gardens on Old Co. Rd. Belmont doesn't have a downtown.

Just make them bring portapots & make it a 6 month trial, not a year. MP can easily tell by late summer whether or not this works.


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Posted by Mark
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 11, 2014 at 6:37 am

I thought MP was a place to raise a family, not a place to grow old and cranky and not let anyone have any fun. You don't see people complaining during the (boring) art and wine festival downtown which has food stands and beer and wine. I don't think the kind of people going to off the grid are the type of people who are eating downtown every night anyway. Furthermore, restaurant owners shouldn't worry as much about off the grid as they should about Palo Alto and their more fun, better restaurants. I live downtown and I STILL go to PA to get dinner if I go out. If owners were smart, instead of complaining they would come up with something fun to offer on the same night as off the grid. Discounts, a little tent outside with food samples, etc.


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Posted by bring them on
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 11, 2014 at 3:08 pm

It seems as though many of the people opposed to this are people who live in the complex by the train station. And to them I say: you chose to live by the train station and you're complaining about a small amount of additional noise a few hours a week?

Then there are people like Mark, who says "I thought MP was a place to raise a family, not a place to grow old." Well, some of us are raising families, but we're getting older too. (So are you, even if you want to deny it.) I really hate to think I'm going to have to move at whatever magical age is considered old simply because this community has become so hostile to its aging residents.

Empty nesters and people living alone, no matter their age, should welcome the food trucks as an easy way to diversify their meals. Cooking dinner for one or two people gets boring real fast.

And owners of Menlo Park restaurants? Right now, people don't think "Menlo Park" when they think about going out to dinner. If having food trucks helps get diners in a Menlo Park mindset, that's good for you too. Maybe those food truck customers will start coming downtown more often when they want to go out to eat.


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Posted by Tunbridge Wells
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 12, 2014 at 10:24 am

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

I remember the outcry raised when BevMo wanted to come into Menlo Park. Beltramo's and Draeger's were predicting dire outcomes, and they are both still here. I shop at all three stores, because they each have their strong suit. I recently bought a rather expensive bottle of Calvados at Beltramo's because the other two don't carry it. The restaurant question is the same. There are times when I want to sit down at a table covered with a white cloth, and there are times that I'm in the mood for tasty little bits of Korean food. I can't get Bibimbap at an Italian restaurant.

Food trucks are inspected, they pay sales taxes (all food is take-out) and provide more variety. Let's try it out for a year and see how it goes. I'm looking forward to it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by ann haley
a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2014 at 10:15 am

I'm in favor of all inexpensive food resources available to people who cannot afford to dine out. No one need be inconvenienced by them. The "clutter" is only temporary. To all complainers: Eat your heart out.


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