News

Food trucks rolling into Menlo Park next month

By Barbara Wood, Special to the Almanac

The food trucks are coming to Menlo Park.

Over the protests of nervous downtown business owners and some local residents, Menlo Park's Planning Commission, at a little past midnight on Jan. 14, approved allowing Off the Grid to bring up to a dozen food trucks to the Caltrain parking lot on Wednesday nights for the next year.

Off the Grid owner Matt Cohen said the first event is planned for Feb. 5.

In a compromise that acknowledged some fears about problems the new venture could cause, the planning commissioners asked to have the issue re-examined in a public hearing in six months.

In the end, all the commissioners supported the proposal, but differed on the term of the use permit. Commissioners Henry Riggs and Katherine Strehl voted for a six-month limit; but the remaining commissioners -- Vincent Bressler, John Kadvany, Ben Eiref, John Onken and Katie Ferrick -- approved the one-year term.

Twenty speakers signed up to comment on the issue, although a few left as the meeting dragged on into the night.

Bez Zahedi, owner of Una Mas restaurant on Santa Cruz Avenue, said he was worried that the customers of Off the Grid would take the parking his customers need. "This is stealing from us," he said.

Off the Grid reported that its parking surveys showed plenty of parking available in the train station lot. But some of the commissioners worried that because the Caltrain parking costs $5, customers would not use it. They also worried about conflicts with Wednesday Giants games.

Ali Elsafy, who owns Bistro Vida on Santa Cruz, said he is "very concerned" about the plan. "We're just now emerging from a difficult recession," he said. "We're still not out of the woods."

Mr. Elsafy asked that the food truck event be moved to another part of Menlo Park or to a different day of the week. "My suggestion would be a different day, a different spot," he said.

Menlo Park resident Hank Lawrence also said the food truck event would be unfair to current downtown merchants. "These people -- the merchants -- they're the fabric of Menlo Park," he said. "They need to be treated with a certain level of dignity and respect. ... Some of these restaurants are really struggling. Do we want to be the people who deliver the coup de grace?"

But the commissioners appeared to agree with residents such as Emily Finch, an architect who lives near the train station on Noel Drive. "We're really in full support of the food trucks," she said. "I think it would bring a lot of much-needed night life and vibrancy to Menlo Park that's missing right now."

Several of the planning commissioners said they hope the food truck event will liven up downtown Menlo Park and perhaps bring new customers to existing businesses. "We can't guarantee that no restaurant will be negatively impacted in some way on Wednesday nights," Planning Commission Chair John Kadvany said. However, he said, he supports the project "given the needs of Menlo Park to develop interest and vibrancy."

Off the Grid is a San Francisco-based company that began organizing gatherings of food trucks in June 2010. It now hosts such events in many Bay Area locations, including the Belmont and Burlingame Caltrain stations.

Off the Grid will use the corner of the train station parking lot near the intersection of Merrill Street and Ravenswood Avenue and close to the West Bay Model Railroad building. Food will be served from 5 to 9 p.m. most of the year and 5 to 8 p.m. in the winter. Live amplified music will be offered from 6 to 8 p.m., with folding chairs, and lighting provided. A portable toilet will be brought in each week.

Off the Grid must clean up the area by 10 p.m. after each event and dispose of all garbage off site. Signs will ban parking from the portion of the train station lot that will be used from 3:30 to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays.

A report by Senior Planner Thomas Rogers addresses the issue of competition with local restaurants by saying, "staff believes the proposed food truck market is not directly analogous to a 'brick-and-mortar' restaurant, as it would be located completely outdoors, offer only informal seating (no tables), and operate for a maximum of four hours per week. Staff believes the relationship between the proposed food truck market and restaurants may be considered similar to the relationship between the Farmers' Market and grocery stores, in that both enterprise types may sell some similar products, but offer significantly different experiences."

See the staff report on the Off the Grid proposal here.

Off the Grid's website: http://offthegridsf.com/about-3

Off the Grid's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OffTheGridSF

Comments

Posted by Diner, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 14, 2014 at 11:22 am

Very happy for this decision but disappointed in the resturants that tried to prevent it. Maybe some day they will realize the way to keep customers is to offer better food, better service and in many cases better prices.

As for Una Mas, really? How can the public "Steal from us" when the parking is a Public lot that they don't pay for or maintain? I used to eat there, now I will have to reconsider that decision.


Posted by janet, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jan 14, 2014 at 11:51 am

Agreed! The restaurants in downtown Menlo Park NEED to serve better food!!! Not many decent restaurants! Maybe the food trucks will open their eyes!!! YIPEEE all for it!! Free enterprise!


Posted by Hungry, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Also very disappointed in the MP restaurant owners who tried to block. We love really good food and have tried almost every restaurant in Menlo park. We stopped going near MP a couple years ago because we just gave up overpaying for really substandard food. The income and clientele is here to support outstanding gourmet food that rivals SF but it is nowhere to be found. The food trucks will actually bring us back to MP every wednesday night and I am really excited about their arrival.


Posted by JP, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:16 pm

The argument from the owner of Una Mas is telling. He seems to feel he's entitled to control use of publicly-owned spaces.

If his business is struggling (and I suspect it is), he needs to look inward. I've eaten at his restaurant a couple times--my daughter likes it--and I find the food to be extremely mediocre and the surroundings typically in need of cleaning. There's no reason a good burrito joint shouldn't be doing well on Santa Cruz. I suspect Chipotle would be raking it in at that location.


Posted by RUKidding, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Astonishingly, Emily Finch told the Planning Commission that food trucks--noisy, smelly, grease-laden food trucks--in a parking lot adjacent to the Caltrain no less--will bring "night life" and "vibrancy" to Menlo Park.
Words fail me.




Posted by Diner, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Night Life? No Menlo Park will never have a Night Life, but it will bring a reason to go to downtown Menlo Park on Wednesday evenings and socialise with other people while eating. At other food truck events the seating is limited so you end up sharing a table with different people and get some very interesting conversations.

RUKidding - you obviously don't like the food truck because if you had been to them you would know they are not any more noisy than the kitchen in your average restaurant, most are not greasy (all of them are clean) and the smells coming from them are usually quite good. Better than the smells coming from some of the places on Santa Cruz Ave.


Posted by excited, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I think the ocmmissioners mostly agreed with Emily -- which is why they were able to set aside the fallacious arguments proffered by restaurant owners.

If your restaurant isn't making money, time to close shop. Don't expect the city to subsidize you. Or join the crowd! OTG said it would eagerly accommodate the addition of local food establishments. (I was impressed by the OTG rep - he had his act together and said all the right things. The pathetic whines of the restaurant owners, not so compelling.)

It will be like a street party every Wednesday by the train station. Unless you're a confirmed curmudgeon, what's not to like?


Posted by Joseph Gordon, a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm

I think it's a net benefit because people can choose where they dine. Most restaurants and food trucks are not substitutes, so it won't take business away. I can see why Una Mas, however, is concerned, but they have the benefit of a high traffic retail location.

In my opinion food trucks are nasty and don't adhere to health standards.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Una Mas no mas. It's always been mediocre. No wonder they feel threatened.


Posted by whiner, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 14, 2014 at 2:07 pm

"In my opinion food trucks are nasty and don't adhere to health standards."

When lacking facts, stick with "In MY OPINION....."

;-)

Happy to see Menlo adopt the trucks. They're not 5 star, but they are certainly diverse, can be good, and they are fun on a nice night.

Try the cola/whiskey buns from that Asian truck!!

MP should compromise and extend the music schedule at Fremont and make the whiners (sorry, I meant "small business owners") happy by getting traffic between the music and trucks.

Give me a reason to stop in MP and not fly by, to PA.


Posted by Janet L, a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2014 at 2:28 pm

The restaurants made a mistake in positioning themselves against food trucks. They're completely different experiences. When I want a relaxing dinner like a restaurant provides I'm not going to want to sit in a parking lot. When I want a very casual meal with a lot of variety and some people watching, I'll go for the food trucks.

Some restaurants use their food trucks (and food stalls at street fairs) to drive business to their permanent locations. Could work here too.


Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm

@ Diner - " sharing a table with different people and get some very interesting conversations" ?

No tables at OtG. Sit in a folding chair & eat on your lap, or stand.

@ whiner - "MP should compromise and extend the music schedule at Fremont and make the whiners (sorry, I meant "small business owners") happy by getting traffic between the music and trucks."

Fremont Park is bounded on 2 sides by residences, not businesses, and it's very loud for those over-the-fence neighbors. Sound bounces back hard into the 900 block of Menlo Ave. Hours are unlikely to be extended at this venue.

I'm glad they have to bring their own loo but I'm still concerned about 3:30 parking ban in that section. What happens to the hapless driver who's on a train that's delayed & doesn't get his car out by 3:30. Tow?

Too bad for the Model Train Club, I guess.

I don't see direct competition here with restaurants. When I want a table, I'll go to a restaurant even though I have to tip for often-bad service. My last experience at Left Bank was so bad that it really is the last, even though I like their food (party of 6 with res. By flagging passing bussers, it took 20 minutes to get menus, another 10 for water, another 15 to order, while 3 waiters tried to figure out which of them was responsible for our table.)

Restaurants can up their game, improve cleanliness (UnaMas!, Trellis) and service. They might also try something like Dine-About-Town, so popular in SF & Berkeley, introducing a new menu item or 2. We've discovered new restaurants & continued to patronize ones we like. Web Link

If restaurants will be as courteous to new customers as they are solicitous of their "regulars", they won't suffer.

And yes, I also go to other towns to eat. RC, SM, & PA also have movies. Menlo Park will never be a nightlife hot spot but it could attract out-of-town diners with consistently better service & food. MP does offer free parking.



Posted by excited, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 14, 2014 at 5:20 pm

OTG doesn't have to attract out-of-towners -- it will be successful if it can prevent MP residents from heading over to University Ave for dinner, give commuters an alternative to opening a can of soup, or lure tired parents away from the kitchen.(Most kids are going to love OTG, and I can see parents using a potential visit as an inducement to finish homework before dinner.)

It's good that OTG didn't try to get its start in this city, or it would have never happened. They have a track record of success around the bay, with no apparent complaints about portapotties or trash.

I remember the wailing from Fremont Park neighbors re the city's Sunday afternoon concerts that were held once a month. The neighbors insisted that the city pay them hundreds of dollars so they could go out to eat rather than stay home and listen to live music. Crazy! So many uptight people; you will be happier if you can open yourself to the possibility of enjoying this new dining experience.


Posted by Mooshi, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 14, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Recently moved here and very disappointed with the quality of food offered by MP restaurants. So happy the food trucks will be here soon. Hope it brings a good competition.


Posted by Diner, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 14, 2014 at 10:27 pm

The owner of Round Table claims "...It's like we were stabbed in the back, that's how I feel". This coming from the owner of a pizza place that makes mediocre pizza and charges upwards of $26 for a large plus a delivery fee. It makes me feel like I am getting stabbed in the wallet.

If you have a good product this is a great opportunity to expand your market by selling it to the people who OTG attracts. It is like Connoisseur Market Place, you can put up a booth with your product and sell it there for people to try. The location of OTG is so close you can make the food in your kitchen and have someone take it to the booth while it is still hot and fresh. You can do this once every month or two and attract new patrons to your brick and mortar location. However if you have poor tasting food and can't even get it to a table in your own restaurant warm, then OTG is going to hurt your bottom line, but the fact is, you deserve that and the people of Menlo Park deserve better.

As for me, I am putting the restaurants that tried to block OTG on my black list. I work downtown and eat there often, I will continue to do so but not at the places that feel they have the right to block my choices just to fill their wallets or to claim that people will steal their parking spaces in a PUBLIC parking lot!


Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2014 at 11:34 pm

There are some really great restaurants in Menlo Park, but I didn't see any of those owners quotes in the article. Was it just the mediocre/lousy restaurants that felt threatened?


Posted by Downtowner, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2014 at 3:42 am

We all have different ideas about what makes a good pizza. I want a very thin crust so I like Round Table & Applewood. I don't like large uncooked vegetables that aren't cooked enough on thick crust so I avoid Amici. I used to love Carpaccio's White Pizza - goat cheese, smoked salmon, capers, and dill but that was retired years ago.

I think fast food restaurants have more to worry about from OtG competition. I do think MP needs a really great hamburger, Jeffreys is so-so with mediocre fries, and Jason's tries to be the United Nations of food so consequently little of it is really good. A classic American cheeseburger shouldn't come with breakfast sides of fruit compote and orange slices. Neither the Oasis or the Goose are "downtown" so maybe there's a great burger at OtG. My food truck experiences have been in Palo ALto (disorganized, ran out of everything very quickly, long lines so not great), Los Angeles(terrific), San Francisco (inconsistent) Redwood City (little variety but pleasant venue) & Paris (fabulous), so it will be interesting to see if this group has anything worth eating.


Posted by commuter, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2014 at 9:32 am

The parking situation concerns me. Commuters park for the whole day so this must mean a large section of the lot will be blocked off one day a week?

Why not do this on Mondays? Then most restaurants that are closed on Mondays wouldn't have the same impact.
I hope the permit has strict provisions so it can be cancelled if there is not adherence.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 15, 2014 at 10:34 am

Objecting restaurants, thank you for providing a road map of exactly where to keep my business from. No Mas "Uno Mas."


Posted by Willows Grandma, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm

For a good look at what the food trucks are doing in Menlo Park, please drop by the Willows market on Monday nights between 4-8pm.

Typically there are 4 trucks squeezed in the front and side of the market. The existing parking lot and the adjacent dirt lot serve for overflow parking. Traffic along Middlefield Road is impacted by cars entering and leaving the lot.

We applaud the vibrancy this once a week event brings to our neighborhood market. We cringe when we need to pick up a gallon of milk on our way home from work.

Parking at the train station will be only one of the issues. Traffic, pedestrian safety, debris cleanup. With the exception of Business permits to work in Menlo Park, are there any health inspections?

The downtown restaurants will be impacted, but they can also join in by providing specials on those nights and post signs to alert the customers that the specials are available.

While I do not look forward to the crowds, the change can stimulate creativity in marketing the existing businesses.


Posted by Diner, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 15, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Grandma,

I often go to the Willows market Food Trucks after work on Monday night and I have never seen Middlefield road impacted by traffic going to the trucks. It is normally bad in the evenings and not any worse on any Monday I have been there. I usually find parking in the lot on the side of the market however on a couple occasions I have had to park in the dirt area, which has never been even 1/3 full. It seems to me that many people order food to go so they only park there for 10 or 15 minutes. I have also not seen amy problems with trash at the market after the event.

I will admit that I probably would not stop by that market for a gallon of milk on Monday night, however there are at least two other markets nearby you can go to (The old Menalto Market and the old All American Market).

From what I understand the food trucks are required to park overnight is a specific place so that they can be inspected. I don't know if it is the same inspection that restaurants undergo but I have not seen any trucks at the Willows market that look unclean.


Posted by Sam Sinnott, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2014 at 3:36 pm

My office is across the street from the new Borrone's Marketbar which will open soon. It is a beautiful installation that could have cost them, as a tenant, well over $500,000. The primary reason for the construction cost is government oversight. The health department, among others, oversees the kitchen details that cost a bundle. Why? To protect the health of the public by demanding that conditions that have been demonstrated to cause health problems are eliminated.

Food trucks are not subject to the same requirements. I am not sure how they are inspected, if at all, but they should be required to meet the same standards, including disabled access.

For an insight into a world without health department oversight of restaurants in the 1920's read Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London.


Posted by new guy, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Hey Sam,

No one spends a half million on a bar concept in MP. Sorry, but your estimation clearly not well thought through.

One quick look at what "marketbar" will offer is a few take out options, or something else people will have to wait for. Looks like some outdoor seating that requires heat-lamps as the location is in the shade.

To be honest, not very compelling from what is to be seen currently. I HOPE I am wrong about this concept as I TRULY want to see good food in MP.

Please someone offer good food in MP.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2014 at 9:21 pm

[Portion removed; don't accuse a restaurant of health code violations without evidence.]
For many years, that tawueria on Willow, in Belle Haven - the 2nd one on the left - had a super clean kitchen. Don't know currently if it does. Also, the BBQ place on Willow, across from the park, used to have an incredibly clean kitchen. Don't know about its current state. But they're not trendy like Borrone.


Posted by excited, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 9:25 am

The issues of cleanliness and health dept inspections were raised and addressed at the PC meeting. If the food truck doesn't look sanitary enough to you, don't eat there! But that's no reason for you to prevent others from doing so. I hope you cover your face when you sneeze too!


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:42 am

Well, gosh, I can accuse them of health code violations - because they occured. It was all over the news last year. THAT is what it took to pressure them to correct them. Borrone's is overrated, always has been.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:45 am

Proof: Web Link


Posted by Mike Keenly, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Whether someone decides to open or close a restaurant in Menlo Park has very little to do with whether some food trucks show up in a parking lot one evening a week. People choose to eat from a food truck or at a restaurant for many different reasons.


Posted by tom h, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 3:43 pm

menlo park is dead at night, any life even once a week would help.


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