Food truck scene poised for major growth in Sonoma County
While the food truck revolution has swept through much of the nation, it has been more of an afterthought in Sonoma County.
But a mostly vacant lot in downtown Petaluma may soon dramatically change things.
That’s where Charles Hildreth is building The Block Petaluma, a 23,000-square-foot area that will house up to eight gourmet food trucks a day, a beer garden, backyard seating and games as well as parking for 36 cars and a bike rack. The design, which features shipping containers refurbished as restrooms, would easily be at home in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa District.
Hildreth said he feels there is a pent-up customer demand for his project, especially as the food truck culture has flourished nationwide in cities that take a lighter approach to regulating the roving food businesses. Those include Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and San Francisco.
How much demand? When Hildreth bought a promoted ad on Facebook touting The Block, he picked up 1,600 likes in less than 48 hours.
“The response has been pretty incredible,” said Hildreth, a 28-year-old who formerly worked as an emergency medical technician.
The Block is not the only effort. Brewster’s Beer Garden also is slated to open this fall in downtown Petaluma with a space for one food truck on a rotating basis. In addition, Off the Grid, a San Francisco powerhouse in the industry that arranges mobile pop-up marketplaces on a weekly basis, is searching various spots around Sonoma County to set up shop before year’s end, said Matt Cohen, founder and chief executive officer.
“We’re interested in Sonoma,” Cohen said. “It’s one of the most special places in the entire world. As an organization, we are excited to be able to operate there in the future.”
The activity comes after years of neglect because of the stringent laws over where food trucks can operate, as well as political pressure by downtown merchants wary of losing business to these upstarts.
For the most part, these so-called gourmet food trucks operate in Sonoma County at farmers markets or festivals. The most notable regular one is the Tuesday Night Farmers Market in the city of Sonoma. Some trucks operate on the property of private businesses, such as a brewpub, though some cities require additional fees and permits for such venues. Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery has held a popular one on its property on the last Friday of each month.
But many local operators are forced to go to areas such as Marin County and San Francisco to round up more customers to make their business sustainable.
Rachel Hundley, co-owner of the Southern cuisine-inspired Drums and Crumbs food truck, has taken her vehicle into San Francisco so she can reach the ?100 customers per visit that she needs to make her business profitable. There, she can park on the street to sell her specialties - which now include a chicken waffle cone drizzled with syrup that has mac and cheese stuffed inside - under the city’s permitting system.
Hundley, who also serves on the Sonoma City Council, can’t do that in her hometown. She even noted that it’s an “arduous process” to operate her food truck on the private property of a business located in the city limits.
“I don’t think it’s easy to be a food truck in Sonoma County,” Hundley said.
The local resistance has lingered ever since the 2011 failure of the Munch Mondays project in the city of Santa Rosa. Under the program, food trucks received a special permit to park in a city parking lot south of the downtown library to bring more excitement to the dining scene.
But city officials scrapped it amid protests from downtown restaurateurs who argued that the trucks were taking away patrons.
Meanwhile, the food truck sector is flourishing nationally. The growth is not coming from the traditional worksite vehicles or taco trucks, but rather newer ones with global cuisines that can run the gamut from serving avocado sea salt ice cream to a Sriracha candy bar.
The industry is expected to generate $2.1 billion nationally in 2017, said Richard Myrick, editor-in-chief of the industry news website Mobile Cuisine.
The modern movement is generally attributed to Roy Choi, who created a cult following in 2008 in Los Angeles with his truck, Kogi, which stuffed Korean BBQ into Mexican tacos. The trend then swept through other large urban areas. The Grilled Cheese Truck out of Los Angeles became so successful that it was ?able to franchise out to other ?cities.
The growth resulted from a combination of several things that came out of the recession, Myrick said. First, there was a glut of chefs and cooks who were laid off during the economic slump. Second, many construction projects were canceled when banks were forced to tighten lending practices, leaving vacant spaces that could be rented cheaply. Finally, the advent of Facebook and Twitter, along with the smartphone, made it easy to publicize the location of roving food trucks on a daily or hourly basis.