Food truck scene poised for major growth in Sonoma County

Two Petaluma projects are seeking to make gourmet food trucks a regular part of the dining scene 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.

“It was the perfect storm,” he said.

According to Mobile Cuisine, the average food truck in 2015 cost $85,000, though Myrick said some can go up to $300,000. There were 4,130 food trucks operating nationally, generating an average of $290,556 in annual revenues per truck, the site found.

As the industry grew, other suppliers saw opportunity. Indiana-based Utilimaster, known for making FedEx trucks, in 2013 announced it was going to start manufacturing food trucks. Square Inc. of San Francisco was also crucial in boosting revenue because its software payment program allowed customers to pay by credit or debit card.

While the number of food trucks has doubled over the past five years, according to Myrick, the growth in Sonoma County has been more stagnant. Last year, there were 185 licensed mobile food facilities, which includes food trucks as well as carts, according to the county health department. The number has changed little since 2011, when there were 176.

Some owners have found creative ways to generate work outside of festivals or markets.

For example, Red Horse Pizza’s trailer on weekends serves patrons who visit HenHouse Brewing Co.’s tasting room in Santa Rosa. The brewery only offers up free popcorn and many who drink want to break up the alcohol with food. Red Horse owner Kendra Stuffelbeam said she frequently has to explain to people that local laws make it unrealistic for her to show up in their neighborhood soon.

“The public really wants it,” Stuffelbeam said.

Susie Pryfogle, who owns TIPS Tri Tip trolley with her husband, Andrew, has resorted to creativity as she makes the rounds at auto row along Corby Avenue on Thursdays. Pryfogle doesn’t have a permit to linger at the businesses and can’t park on the street, but she can serve if she pulls up to each dealership and there is a line waiting.

“If there aren’t any customers, we have to move along,” she said.

Off the Grid has been especially helpful to growing the sector in Northern California because it handles site locations, permitting and promotion of the events, allowing the trucks to focus on selling their food without all the logistical hassle. In return, the company charges a $50 fee and 10 percent of the revenue. It now operates in six counties and does about 50 locations a week, Cohen said.

The company is very aggressive on social media, which Cohen said helps drive customers to trucks. As many as 1,200 people attend its events. But the company has failed to secure a site in Petaluma, where the city instead went with the more permanent structures.

While he understands wariness from local restaurateurs, Cohen said that his events increase foot traffic where all businesses can benefit.

Off the Grid has conducted surveys that have found its customers view the events similar to going out to a restaurant. “If they weren’t coming to it, they would actually be dining at home,” he said.

Locally, the Barlow complex in Sebastopol has had some food trucks for its Thursday night events to bring in more people.

As food trucks increase, the issue is even murky for some brick-and-mortar restaurateurs. Sondra Bernstein, owner of The Girl & The Fig restaurant in Sonoma, will soon have her own food truck, dubbed the Fig Rig, which will help supplement her busy catering business. The truck will offer dishes beyond the rustic French cuisine that critics have lauded the restaurant for.

“I do think it’s competition. But I also think people are looking for another type of experience,” Bernstein said. She noted she has had a change of heart after being an early critic of the Sebastiani effort. “I think that peoples’ dining wants are constantly changing,” she added.

Bernstein said she is eager to try some of the new startups in the county like The Block. Hildreth welcomes the eagerness as he hopes by late July to start recouping the estimated $350,000 cost he will have poured into the business - funded by one major investor. His father, an architect, drew up the design of the park.

“We really want to accentuate the local trucks we have here, but we also want to bring in stuff from all over. Some trucks do tours,” he said. “It works great for the family. Dad wants Korean tacos, and mom wants spaghetti, kid wants grilled cheese. It’s all there.”

When he heard that Brewster’s also would have a truck, Hildreth initially worried about the competition. But he has since gotten over the news because he believes it will add to the city’s re-energized downtown and bring in more people.

“We are going to have the synergy that will work for downtown,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or

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