By Barbara Wood, Special to the Almanac
You might say a food fight is expected in Menlo Park Monday night. Whether to allow Off the Grid to bring a changing roster of eight to 12 food trucks to the Menlo Park train station parking lot on Wednesday nights will be considered by Menlo Park's Planning Commission on Monday, Jan. 13.
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Menlo Park council chambers at 701 Laurel St. The Off the Grid matter is the fourth public hearing on the agenda.
A city staff report by senior planner Thomas Rogers recommends the city give Off the Grid a one-year use permit.
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 at the Belmont and Burlingame CalTrain stations.
If the communications already received by the city are any indication, the meeting may become heated. Some neighbors and local business owners have complained the food trucks will take business from local restaurants and cause parking, noise, trash and other problems. Others have said they welcome the chance to listen to music and try different foods.
Off the Grid is proposing to use the southern corner of the train station parking lot, near the intersection of Merrill Street and Ravenswood Avenue, close to the West Bay Model Railroad building.
Food would be served from 5 to 9 p.m. most of the year and 5 to 8 p.m. in the winter. Live amplified music would be offered from 6 to 8 p.m., with folding chairs, and lighting provided. A portable toilet would be either brought in each week or left on site.
Off the Grid would be responsible for cleaning up the area and disposing of all garbage by 10 p.m. the night of the event.
A parking survey by Off the Grid shows the area is rarely used for parking and the train station parking lot has the capacity for the number of cars the event is expected to draw. Off the Grid proposes to erect signs banning parking from the portion of the lot that will be used from 3:30 to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays.
The city staff report concludes the food truck event "could provide an example of a new connected place of activity and social life that enhance community life and contribute to a vibrant downtown." The event might also invite "strolling and public gathering" and encourage "community life, identity and sense of place," the report says.
The report addresses the issue of competition with local restaurants by saying that the 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 Farmer's Market and grocery stores, in that both enterprise types may sell some similar products, but offer significantly different experiences."
An email from Bob Larson, owner of Round Table Pizza on El Camino Real, disagreed. "This may be the final straw," he wrote. "You risk pitting merchants against residents." He wrote of the "the struggle the restaurant community has been through the last few years" and said "we feel very unappreciated and unwanted."
John Beltramo, an owner of Beltramo's Wines and Spirits, also wrote to the city on behalf of local restaurants. "Residents of Menlo Park already have many choices for dining," he wrote. "We should keep our dining dollars within our local economy."
But some neighbors disagree. Mary Salmon emailed the city to say: "I'm very excited about being able to taste different gourmet foods all in one space. And as a busy mom it'd be a lifesaver to be able to count on this one day a week."
Click here to see the city staff report (PDF document).