Restaurant Row

Downtown restaurants and food trucks need to find common ground for the delicious future of our city.

Hundreds in line | Photo John Burgess, PD
Hundreds in line | Photo John Burgess, PD

I spent a long time talking to a downtown restaurant owner today. He wasn’t particularly happy to hear from me at first. With all the public hubbub around the food trucks versus the downtown brick and mortars, I can’t exactly blame him. Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard and seen a lot of unpleasantness hurled around — both in the media and behind the scenes and it is no exaggeration to say that a lot of local food industry folks are frustrated, angry, scared, confused, defensive or generally pissed off about the whole thing.

Sides are being taken and lines drawn. Public stances and private rumors don’t make for a cozy family table. But here’s the bottom line: It’s time to come together.

Munch Monday — Santa Rosa’s mobile food extravaganza that’s been at the heart of both elation and controversy — is in jeopardy. Last week Eat Fleet organizers decided to move the event to a new location at Sonoma and D Streets to placate downtown restaurant owners who felt the weekly mobile lunchtime gathering was hurting their business.

But permits have not been filed by the city allowing for that new location yet. A short term special events permit was granted for the Munch Monday event through February at the location between the post office and downtown library. Those have now have expired putting the event in a temporary limbo.

Why? The city is taking a lot of heat from brick and mortars for permitting and publicizing the event that started in January 2011. At the heart of much of the consternation are rough feelings that downtown Santa Rosa business owners weren’t consulted about the trucks or given any say in their welcome to downtown. Some businesses felt their presence made for unfair competition. Seeing potential in the exploding food truck trend perhaps the city embraced the pitch too hastily. Mindful of vocal existing business interests, yet wanting to promote new reasons for people to come downtown, they’re now between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Meanwhile, the mobile vendors are struggling to come to terms with their own success. Demand is high, but most have ridiculously small margins between success and failure. Things like weather and flat tires wreak havoc. Food, staffing and cost of business are surprisingly steep. No diplomatic expert is being paid to champion their existence, although they’ve clearly brought a lot of folks downtown both for the novelty and for a change in their food scenery. Instead, time and energy has been spent trying to defend themselves. I’d argue wasted time that could have been better spent on expanding the event and finding creative ways to work with downtown restaurants. I’ve heard many of their ideas, which are good. They just need to find a receptive home and willing listeners.  And yes, they’ve made some mistakes, too.

Of course, the brick and mortars are facing their own more obvious challenges. The economy still stinks. February is always a terrible month for the restaurant business in Sonoma County. They’re frustrated with issues of parking and permitting downtown. Communication probably wasn’t what it should have been. I listened and talked to that downtown restaurant owner and came away with a better understanding and respect for his very real concerns and they’re not minor. There are very legitimate fears and concerns, and I appreciate the hard-work and livelihoods on the line.

But here’s the thing: The possible demise of Munch Monday isn’t going to keep anyone’s doors open. It won’t bring a flood of diners back downtown. Nor will it shut down the trucks. If Munch Monday goes away, it just makes for a void in the Santa Rosa food scene that will be filled elsewhere. Food trucks shouldn’t be a convenient scapegoat for other problems. And less money flowing into downtown isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

In my mind, there are some bigger issues to restaurants and food trucks can tackle together: Like downtown’s horrible parking situation, vulturous ticketing and creating a new unified front to diners. Talking smack in the media sounds desperate, no matter what side you’re on, and it’s just not tasty marketing.

As hard as they may be to see right now, there are some silver linings to be found in this sour pickle of a situation. The trucks have inspired downtown Santa Rosa restaurant owners to organize themselves into a formalized association. For years there’s been discussion about a restaurant cooperative, but the immediate need for a united voice, leadership and cooperative marketing has germinated this long-dormant seed.

Another hopeful ray of light is that some downtown restaurants are taking to heart some of the very things that make the food trucks so inspiring to eaters. This is a wake up call that resting on laurels is a bad plan and constant reinvention, great customer service and aggressive marketing work. When people are more excited to sit on a dirty curb and eat dim sum than to come into your restaurant, ask why.

No doubt there remains much more to told in this ongoing story – -because it’s a fight being waged in cities around the country. Downtown restaurant owners are slated to continue the conversation at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

But whatever your stand, it’s time to come together, start listening to each other and find a way to work together for the delicious future of our city.