Bakersfield has long been behind the curve when it comes to attracting and supporting higher-end or innovative food trucks like the bistros on wheels that took Los Angeles by storm over the past two decades.
Kogi’s Korean fusion tacos, The Grilled Cheese Truck’s witch doctored-up sandwiches and Mariscos Jalisco’s sultry Brazilian fare are just a few of the players that introduced daring food concepts to a dining public hungry for casual street chic on the cheap.
Now, food trucks like Curbside Kitchen, Pita Paradise, Quig’s BBQ and others are staking their claim to mealtime turf in downtown Bakersfield. And many more trucks are said to be on their way.
But the local trend has some proprietors of brick-and-mortar restaurants more than a little nervous. And a battle may be brewing between the two camps after a letter from the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corporation was sent to City Manager Alan Tandy’s office asking the city to look into the matter.
“Staff has noted that many cities have recently revised ordinances and regulations to reflect the growing popularity of food trucks,” Tandy’s office wrote in its administrative report. “Examples of these changes include limiting the time a vendor can be parked in one location, proximity of vendors to brick and mortar restaurants and vendors’ hours of operation.”
On Wednesday evening, the Bakersfield City Council, with a 6-0 vote, referred discussion of the mobile food vendor ordinance to its Budget and Finance Committee.
Councilman Terry Maxwell did not vote, due to a potential conflict of interest. Maxwell is the owner of T.L. Maxwell’s, a downtown restaurant.
Only three members of the public addressed the issue during public comment, but others spoke to The Californian in previous interviews.
Jerry Baranowski, owner of Jerry’s Pizza on Chester Avenue, started his business more than 25 years ago when entire swaths of downtown looked more like a ghost town than a thriving retail center.
As a restaurant that has fought for years to stay alive when the economy was up and when it was down, Baranowski said, he’s concerned that a mobile food vendor can set up business in a nearby parking lot and draw customers without making the considerable investment brick-and-mortar business owners must make.
How many food trucks can park in the downtown area, he asked the council. How long can they stay? Who will take care of the trash from these businesses? Who will maintain these areas and keep them clean?
And what about restrooms for customers?
“I have nothing against the food trucks,” Baranowski said. “As an entrepreneur myself, I understand that everyone wants to find their place. Food trucks are very cool, almost exotic.
“But, can you imagine how downtown would look with bumper to bumper food trucks?”
Current regulations require food trucks and carts not located on private property to move every 10 minutes. But two trucks that have recently set up in downtown Bakersfield park on private property, and they stay put all day.
Chris Gonzalez, who operates the Curbside Kitchen food truck in the parking lot of Downtown Deli Market at 18th and H streets, said he pays for his city permit, and his county health department certification. He also pays the property owner for the right to park on the lot.
In addition, Gonzalez and most other mobile food vendors must pay a commissary, a central location where the trucks are parked at night, where they can be washed, waste can be dumped and food can be refrigerated.
Judging by the customers regularly lined up to order food, Curbside Kitchen appears to be doing good business.
“What is the problem?” Gonzalez said. “Bakersfield is ready for food trucks.”
Indeed, if social media is any indication, many locals are thrilled that Bakersfield seems to finally be catching on to a trend that has long been routine in major metro areas.
Advocates say food trucks have served as creative spaces where budding restaurateurs can develop new food concepts without risking the capital required of more traditional restaurants.
“Everything with the city has been great,” said Marisol Santiago, the proprietor of Pita Paradise, a truck specializing in Mediterranean-style foods located in the American Legion parking lot at 21st and H streets.
Santiago said she had heard rumors that some restaurant owners were unhappy. But she thinks any problems can be worked out, that there’s room for everybody.
“We’re just the same as a restaurant,” she said. “We do the same thing. We have our license, our permits. People love our food.”
Cathy Butler, executive director of the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corporation who sent the letter to the city, said she simply wants the City of Bakersfield to revisit its ordinance regulating food trucks.
“We’re trying to represent the interests of both sides,” she said. “We’re trying to create an ordinance that is sensitive to brick-and-mortar restaurants.”
Bakersfield is growing, she said. And the downtown business district is as vibrant and dynamic as it’s been in decades. Indeed, new restaurants continue to open downtown, and the dining choices are wider than any other time in the city’s history.
Many business owners welcome all new restaurants, including the food trucks, believing they draw new customers to the city center.
Joe Simpson, who owns a food cart called California Hot Dogs, said the city doesn’t need a new ordinance. Rather it needs to enforce the regulations that are already in place.
“I see a lot of illegal food operations doing business without a permit, without required equipment,” he said.
After 5 p.m., when the doors to city agencies are closed, it’s free reign.
“There’s no code enforcement going on after hours in this city,” he said. And that’s unfair to food vendors who are following the law.
“Bakersfield has plenty of ordinances,” he said. “We just need to make sure they are enforced.”