By Barbara Wood, Special to the Almanac
The food trucks are coming to Menlo Park.
Over the protests of nervous downtown business owners and some local residents, Menlo Park's Planning Commission, at a little past midnight on Jan. 14, approved allowing Off the Grid to bring up to a dozen food trucks to the Caltrain parking lot on Wednesday nights for the next year.
Off the Grid owner Matt Cohen said the first event is planned for Feb. 5.
In a compromise that acknowledged some fears about problems the new venture could cause, the planning commissioners asked to have the issue re-examined in a public hearing in six months.
In the end, all the commissioners supported the proposal, but differed on the term of the use permit. Commissioners Henry Riggs and Katherine Strehl voted for a six-month limit; but the remaining commissioners -- Vincent Bressler, John Kadvany, Ben Eiref, John Onken and Katie Ferrick -- approved the one-year term.
Twenty speakers signed up to comment on the issue, although a few left as the meeting dragged on into the night.
Bez Zahedi, owner of Una Mas restaurant on Santa Cruz Avenue, said he was worried that the customers of Off the Grid would take the parking his customers need. "This is stealing from us," he said.
Off the Grid reported that its parking surveys showed plenty of parking available in the train station lot. But some of the commissioners worried that because the Caltrain parking costs $5, customers would not use it. They also worried about conflicts with Wednesday Giants games.
Ali Elsafy, who owns Bistro Vida on Santa Cruz, said he is "very concerned" about the plan. "We're just now emerging from a difficult recession," he said. "We're still not out of the woods."
Mr. Elsafy asked that the food truck event be moved to another part of Menlo Park or to a different day of the week. "My suggestion would be a different day, a different spot," he said.
Menlo Park resident Hank Lawrence also said the food truck event would be unfair to current downtown merchants. "These people -- the merchants -- they're the fabric of Menlo Park," he said. "They need to be treated with a certain level of dignity and respect. ... Some of these restaurants are really struggling. Do we want to be the people who deliver the coup de grace?"
But the commissioners appeared to agree with residents such as Emily Finch, an architect who lives near the train station on Noel Drive. "We're really in full support of the food trucks," she said. "I think it would bring a lot of much-needed night life and vibrancy to Menlo Park that's missing right now."
Several of the planning commissioners said they hope the food truck event will liven up downtown Menlo Park and perhaps bring new customers to existing businesses. "We can't guarantee that no restaurant will be negatively impacted in some way on Wednesday nights," Planning Commission Chair John Kadvany said. However, he said, he supports the project "given the needs of Menlo Park to develop interest and vibrancy."
Off the Grid is a San Francisco-based company that began organizing gatherings of food trucks in June 2010. It now hosts such events in many Bay Area locations, including the Belmont and Burlingame Caltrain stations.
Off the Grid will use the corner of the train station parking lot near the intersection of Merrill Street and Ravenswood Avenue and close to the West Bay Model Railroad building. Food will be served from 5 to 9 p.m. most of the year and 5 to 8 p.m. in the winter. Live amplified music will be offered from 6 to 8 p.m., with folding chairs, and lighting provided. A portable toilet will be brought in each week.
Off the Grid must clean up the area by 10 p.m. after each event and dispose of all garbage off site. Signs will ban parking from the portion of the train station lot that will be used from 3:30 to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays.
A report by Senior Planner Thomas Rogers addresses the issue of competition with local restaurants by saying, "staff believes the proposed food truck market is not directly analogous to a 'brick-and-mortar' restaurant, as it would be located completely outdoors, offer only informal seating (no tables), and operate for a maximum of four hours per week. Staff believes the relationship between the proposed food truck market and restaurants may be considered similar to the relationship between the Farmers' Market and grocery stores, in that both enterprise types may sell some similar products, but offer significantly different experiences."
See the staff report on the Off the Grid proposal here.
Off the Grid's website: http://offthegridsf.com/about-3
Off the Grid's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OffTheGridSF