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Competing for Lunch Money

By Aaron Blevins, 2/23/2012

City Works on Compromise Between Trucks and Brick and Mortar Restaurants

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One restaurant owner who has grown weary of food trucks on Wilshire Boulevard stealing his lunch has hit the streets to take it back.

Dick Messer, owner of Johnny Rockets at the Petersen, handed out coupons to persuade customers to dine at local restaurants. (photo by Aaron Blevins)

Dick Messer, owner of Johnny Rockets at the Petersen, donned an apron and white hat last Friday and handed out $5 coupons for a burger, fries and a drink — good for food truck patrons only.

The coupons are one way to negate the business lost from the trucks, which operate without paying sales tax, he said. Messer said Johnny Rockets sent a $7,000 check to the city of Los Angeles recently to cover its December sales tax.

“It really isn’t a level playing field,” he added. “We’re providing a service they’re not providing.”

Aside from the sales tax, Johnny Rockets also pays property tax, employs 23 people, offers an ADA-accessible environment and undergoes rigorous health inspections, Messer said. On the other hand, the trucks violate parking laws, create traffic hazards in an area with high pedestrian activity and, in some cases, behead parking meters, he said. Yet, the trucks and the 20 restaurants in the area compete for business.

“The whole thing’s a joke,” Messer said. “They never ticket these guys.”

He said the city looks the other way because officials believe the truck owners’ efforts are the “grassroots of entrepreneurship.” Messer referenced the city’s approximately $150 million deficit for 2012-2013.

“These people don’t understand the economics of the situation,” he said. “No wonder the city’s upside down.”

In the meantime, the Los Angeles City Council may be “re-seating” the food trucks to spots on adjacent streets.

Councilmember Tom LaBonge, 4th District, has been working with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office to draft a motion that would address over-height vehicles parked on Wilshire Boulevard and the safety risks associated with their presence. In its current form, the motion would apply to all large vehicles, whether they are FedEx or food trucks, he said.

“It concerns me with all the traffic — pedestrian and otherwise,” LaBonge said.

He said the idea would be to move the food trucks to safer, adjacent streets, where operators could park the vehicles in areas that don’t pose a safety threat to motorists and pedestrians. However, before any decisions are made, the councilman said he would arrange a meeting with all involved parties. LaBonge said there have also been discussions to create a “corral” for food trucks in the rear parking lot of the George C. Page Museum.

Dan Kim, the owner of the Bool BBQ truck, said he was surprised to hear the rift between restaurants and food trucks surface again. He said the trucks clear “tons of different hurdles” — such as obtaining licenses from the health department and each county they frequent — to operate.

“They’re more strict with us cause we’re mobile,” Kim said.

He said the trucks get tickets all the time, and are sometimes unfairly targeted. Kim said the trucks follow the law in operating 200 feet from a restaurant, and he doesn’t believe the trucks put the restaurants at a disadvantage.

“To be honest with you, business is really bad,” he claimed, due to some new restaurants opening in the area. “Now, it’s time for us to up the ante. It’s just capitalism.”

Kim said his truck has been operating for more than two years, traveling as far as the Valley, Santa Monica and South Bay to serve Korean tacos and BBQ. He said the trucks serve a niche market in the Mid-Wilshire area.

“We give a good option,” he said on Friday, when 22 trucks lined Wilshire and adjacent streets.

Lindsey Nelson and his wife, Dimity, visited LACMA on Friday from Pasadena. Hungy and short on time, they stopped for a snack at one of the food trucks, in hopes of eating at the Farmers Market for dinner later that night. They didn’t know beforehand that the trucks congested across from LACMA, but said they could understand how the assembly of trucks upset restaurant owners.

“By all means, there is a disincentive for them,” Lindsey Nelson said, suggesting that the city look into a licensing agreement. “They get nailed on this deal. …I think their beef is reasonable.”

 

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2 Responses to “Competing for Lunch Money”

  1. Catherine says:

    I have a hard time believing that the LA trucks are not paying sales tax.

  2. Robert says:

    Capitalism has never been a level playing field. I am a fan of these food trucks, but there is still a placelife in my for brick and mortar restaurants, particularly fine-dining. The average lunch restaurant is going to have more trouble in the hot areas that the trucks like to open up shop.


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