SANTA CRUZ >> Former full-time chef Mike Martinez would love nothing more than to return to his beloved profession and stop commuting to Silicon Valley.
For the last decade, Martinez, 44, a former chef at the vaunted downtown bistro Gabriella and Kennolyn Camps in the Soquel hills, has worked as an electrician to save enough money to open his own restaurant. He estimates it will cost millions to acquire property and get up and running.
In the meantime, he bought a customized food truck two years ago to sell roadside rations. Wife Heidi Martinez, 42, preps the “farm to truck” provisions for Low N Slow and serves customers — which specializes in pulled pork, roasted chicken and fries with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese — while friend Scott Mohler does the cooking inside the truck’s professional kitchen.
The truck is only able to open for 2 1/2 hours three days per week because it operates on private property in a city that limits mobile food vendors operating in public. But Mike Martinez might be able to cook his own food again if Santa Cruz revises rules banning a growing number of gourmet purveyors from parking within commercial zones and near schools, and restricting them to 15 minutes in a single spot.
“I would love to stop driving over Highway 17 and work here,” he said, a point driven home once again Thursday when a fatal accident involving a big-rig truck shut down the highway in both directions nearly the entire day.
“I don’t want to take away business from anyone,” said Martinez, who has three children. “I want to fill a void in the city for people who can’t afford a million-dollar restaurant and could own their own truck.”
Last week, the Santa Cruz City Council agreed to study changes in the vending rules to make it easier for food truck operators to thrive. In bringing the request to colleagues, Councilwomen Hilary Bryant and Pamela Comstock cited the popularity of high-quality food trucks.
“Mobile food businesses are a major player in the national culinary scene, and I’d like to see Santa Cruz capitalize on that,” Comstock said. “Modifying our existing ordinances will promote entrepreneurship and give our community convenient access to more food choices.”
Along with cosmopolitan cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, Business Insider reported in May that unlikely towns are sharing in the nearly 200 percent growth of food trucks in recent years, according to research by a tracking group called Roaming Hunger. Orlando, Cleveland and Indianapolis rank high for the number of food trucks per capita.
Comstock, Bryant and Mayor Lynn Robinson will examine the issue for three to four months and make recommendations. Bryant noted a burgeoning food truck scene at UC Santa Cruz and said she would like to see trucks serve the Harvey West area or, in the future, along the San Lorenzo Riverwalk.
But as they are keenly aware, by loosening the restrictions, the council members will have to consider times, locations and costs, as well as impacts on traditional restaurants downtown, near the beach and on the Eastside — some of which are still recovering from the Great Recession and struggle to stay viable during the offseason.
Zachary Davis, one half of a successful duo who opened the chic Penny Ice Creamery and Picnic Basket cafe before delivering the much buzzed-about Assembly restaurant, said there is room to support sit-down eateries and food trucks alike.
“I definitely understand concerns from brick-and-mortar businesses about having to pay parking deficiency fees and traffic impact fees that you might be able to avoid by being mobile,” Davis said of fees charged by the city. “Personally, I take the view that anything that promotes activity and people on the street — people going out and dining out and exploring new things — in a holistic sense benefits the community and benefits Santa Cruz.”
Davis said the creamery — which won national acclaim when Vice President Joe Biden called Davis and business partner Kendra Baker to laud their video praising the federal stimulus funds that enabled their venture — almost started as an ice cream truck. But the pair pulled back because of the city’s restrictions, Davis said.
Last updated in 2005, the city’s rules restrict mobile vending on public property to industrial or residential areas and no closer than 300 feet from a school, where they may sell only prepared food. Vendors can’t sell in congested areas that could “inconvenience the public” or negatively impact traffic and must move at least a block every 15 minutes, the rules say.
The city’s community relations manager, Keith Sterling, said the restrictions originated at least partially in response to complaints about a proliferation of ice cream trucks blocking traffic. If the council committee makes recommendations to open mobile vending within commercial zones, Sterling said the city will closely weigh the impact on existing businesses.
“We’ll look at how successful cities have been able to balance a vibrant downtown restaurant scene with mobile options, as well,” he said.
While the Martinezes, like other food truck purveyors, can build their brand by catering, appearing at festivals and visiting boutique wineries, the couple said they would be willing to pay a fee to operate downtown. Depending on how much the ordinance was loosened, they might invest in a second or third truck to serve East Cliff or West Cliff Drive areas near the beach.
Not that the process is all that easy or cheap. City business licences, county environmental health approval and state inspections of trucks are still required.
A TRUCK VILLAGE
Since April, the Low N Slow truck has flung open its serving window in a vacant lot across the street from the former Wrigley Building on Mission Street, serving lunch to workers from several industrial businesses and the UC Santa Cruz offices on Delaware Avenue.
The truck often sells out, said William Ow, who permits Low N Slow to operate on his property and wants eventually to establish a food truck community on the site that also hosts First Friday events and the Westside farmers market Saturday mornings.
“The community will respond positively when they get the opportunity to try them,” Ow said of food trucks, which he first became enamored of in Portland, Oregon, which has a bustling food truck scene.
Kathy Wallace, who has operated Cruz N Gourmet for two years at UCSC, embraces the idea of a food truck village.
“My first thing would be to get all the food trucks together at one time and do some food truck rally, where on a Friday or Saturday late afternoon they close off the street and let food trucks come park and sometimes play music,” she said.
UCSC entered into a contract with Cruz N Gourmet, Zameen Mediterranean Food Truck and Raymond’s Catering after mobile vendors began arriving at campus construction sites years ago. UCSC created regulations for how they should operate, including appropriate locations and safety measures.
But trucks can only grow their business, Wallace said, if they can be where there is more consistent foot traffic. Customers are willing to follow the movements of mobile vendors on social networking sites, but there has to be some regularity to when and where they operate.
“We used to park on the Westside and did OK,” said Wallace, whose truck is known for its Sweet Indonesian pulled pork and vegetarian chili. “We would do a few sales in 15 minutes, then people would lose where we were.”