The Truck Stop nourished partygoers at the Tannery’s June 1 grand opening. (Photo by Traci Hukill)
When Fran Grayson’s friend was looking to sell a shiny chrome truck, Grayson thought it might be time to make the purchase herself and open up a restaurant on wheels.
“I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” she says. Grayson is walking through the downtown Santa Cruz farmer’s market pulling a cooler of fresh produce she’ll use in recipes at her Truck Stop, parked on Mission Street next to the Filling Station. She also goes to the Live Oak farmer’s market on Sunday mornings. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but it seems like people really like it.”
Grayson says the food truck scene, with its typically affordable menu items, is a perfect fit for Santa Cruz—which begs the question: why hasn’t it taken off here? Grayson’s is one of just a small handful of food trucks in town, most of which—like Cruz n Gourmet, Raymond’s Catering and Babaloo—go to UCSC but don’t make stops in town proper.
One answer is population density. The cities where the culinary craze is sweeping hipsters off their vegan-shod feet—places like Portland and San Francisco—tend to be much bigger and denser than Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz Community Farmers Market director Nesh Dillon, who grew up in Portland, thinks food trucks are an excellent way to share and distribute local produce, and he wants to see more of them. He’s one who thinks the area’s low urban density has made the Santa Cruz area slow to adapt to the food cart craze, adding the current zoning laws haven’t helped either.
But what about arrangements other than the standard scenario of the food truck rolling through town, Tweeting its next location to hordes of fans? One thinks of the miraculous sights in Austin, for example, where multiple food trucks populate empty lots around town and put out tables and chairs, providing a real world version of the food court at the mall.
Dillon, who helped bring food trucks to the farmer’s markets (Roli Roti to the downtown market and Low ‘n’ Slow to Felton), has his own notions about expanding food trucks to new locations in Santa Cruz. He’s mum on details. But, he adds, it might not happen anyway without some policy changes from city hall.
The evidence suggests that Santa Cruz hasn’t caught up with the hipster capitals of the country, food truck regulation-wise. Eric Marlatt of the planning department says because the city doesn’t have any food truck laws, a truck stationed on private property—like Grayson’s—falls under the same regulations that apply to fast food. Applicants must apply for a use permit (a process Grayson is currently undergoing), which usually takes about two or three months and includes a public hearing. Food trucks that roam from one parking spot to another, on the other hand, go through a separate permitting process with the Santa Cruz Police Department.
Marlatt says he doesn’t know why food cart mania hasn’t taken off in Santa Cruz, but he doesn’t think planning laws are to blame. “We don’t get many inquiries,” he says. “In the past year, we’ve gotten two or three.”
On the other hand, who’s to say it couldn’t take off with some creative thinking and a welcoming regulatory atmosphere? “If the ordinances are tweaked so that people can start these businesses up, that’s going to make it easier,” Dillon says.