Santa Rosa scraps Munch Mondays

Stick a fork in Munch Mondays, at least for now.

Santa Rosa's downtown restaurants have succeeded in driving off the food trucks they viewed as unfair competition.

The city announced Wednesday that it was suspending support for the event following the latest round of opposition from restaurateurs who worried the trucks were congregating too close to their establishments.

The city's latest plan was to move the trucks from a parking lot on Third Street, where a half-dozen vendors gathered in January and February, to Sonoma Avenue Park south of city hall.

But the restaurants couldn't accept that location, either.

"The feedback we received from the downtown restaurants along Fourth Street was that it was still too close to the downtown center," said Dave Gouin, the city's director of economic development and housing.

Efforts to shift the event to Railroad Square also fell apart after the district's restaurants voted Monday against hosting it on their side of Highway 101.

City economic development specialist Raissa De La Rosa said the Munch Monday concept isn't dead; it just needs a new home.

"Sometimes when things are good ideas, sometimes the timing's not right," she said. "I definitely think that's the case here."

De La Rosa said she's actively looking for a new location in the city and hopes one can be identified soon. But she doubts one will work downtown given the reaction.

"I'm disappointed in the tone of the entire debate," she said.

The city granted the food trucks a special permit to gather in a city parking lot south of the downtown library as a way of enlivening the downtown food scene. Downtown restaurants also were promoted as part of the eight-week pilot project.

But restaurateurs, some of whom said they were never informed of the city's efforts, were steamed. Restaurants like Le Vera Pizza, Mary's Pizza Shack, Mac's deli, Rendezvous Bistro, Flavor, La Bufa and others communicated their displeasure to the city.

Upon learning the city was planning to move the event to Sonoma Avenue, Ty Marestein, director of operations for Mary's Pizza Shack, e-mailed Gouin denouncing the event as a "fiasco" that should "stop immediately" because it was hurting business. Any regular food event like Munch Mondays close to the downtown core was "unacceptable to all the restaurants as it only further dilutes business levels that are still in recovery from the economic downturn."

Jeff Tyler, owner of two Chicago Style Hot Dog carts, called the city's decision "a shame."

If the city doesn't want the trucks downtown, they'll go elsewhere, drawing all that business away from downtown, he said.

"We were creating foot traffic. That's a fact," Tyler said. "I say go where you're celebrated, not tolerated."

Tyler said he's received interest from other cities interested in hosting similar events.

Andrew Siegal, co-owner of Dim Sum Charlie's, a Napa-based business with two trucks, said he's perplexed because other communities seem excited about such events. He just signed a deal to put on a monthly Last Friday event at Sebastiani Winery in downtown Sonoma.

He called the opposition from some Santa Rosa restaurants "weird." La Vera Pizza, for example, already had a cart of its own on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and its owners would have needed to wheel it two blocks away to participate.

Instead they were part of the "complaint crew," Siegal said. He offered to partner with them to use social media to promote the event, but to no avail, he said.

"They were just not into it at all," Siegal said. "I think that they would have been seen as progressive and creative instead of resenting everything."

The city chose to hold the event during the Monday lunch hour because that's a slow time for restaurants. But the move became part of the problem because it turned a marginal shift into a miserable one for the restaurant and wait staff, said Lila Ryan, co-owner of the Sweetspot pub on Fourth Street.

They were planning to shut down on Mondays if the event continued, Ryan said.

"When you go from slow to nothing, you have no choice but to close," she said.

City Councilman Gary Wysocky agreed that downtown restaurants had reason to complain.

Common sense says that the trucks are going to eat into the business of the existing restaurants, he said.

"It's basically allowing someone to set up right on their front door with less overhead with less cost, and basically skim off the top," Wysocky said.

He said the event is a "good idea" for a "restaurant dead zone" like the county administration center or an industrial or business park.

Not all restaurants were against the event, nor where all downtown merchants, De La Rosa said.

She thinks restaurants have realized there was strong demand for the service offered by the trucks and hopes they will finds ways to "promote their own versions of the quick pick-up meal for enjoyment at the many downtown outdoor social gathering spots."

That's exactly what Rendezvous Bistro owner Nino Rabbaa said he's hoping will come out of the whole experience. "Obviously, we should not ignore what customers are requesting," Rabbaa said.

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