They had been completely in the dark -- right up to the 6 p.m. start time of the monthly street party -- as to whether they'd be allowed to set up shop.
Fresh mobile food has been an integral part of First Fridays since anyone can remember. But by November 2010, the truck population had grown to 40 or 50 vehicles -- all squeezed along the few blocks of sidewalk that sandwich Venice's hippest drag. So in December, a committee of Abbot Kinney store owners scored a permit that would block all street parking for the duration of the party.
In an attempt to save this month's First Friday, Bigfoot Entertainment, who owns a parking lot in the vicinity, offered to host a maximum of eight or so food trucks. However, Bigfoot called the deal off a few days in advance, releasing this mysterious statement:
"Due to what appears to be a miscommunication following a verbal agreement between Bigfoot, the [Abbot Kinney Merchants Committee] and the SoCal [Mobile Food Vendors Association], we will unfortunately not host food trucks on our lot for First Fridays. We hope that in the future the two groups can find a way to co-exist for First Fridays for the benefit of everyone who frequents and appreciates the food trucks."
It looked like January would be another no-go for the gypsy-style moving restaurants. But then -- though the merchants committee had been continually threatening to repeat the December parking ban -- a few truck owners noticed no one had posted "No Parking" signs along the boulevard by T minus 48 hours.
So by noon on Friday, Jan. 7, a small handful of food truckies decided they might as well try their luck that evening.
When the Weekly showed up to the street fest last Friday, we counted a grand total of seven food trucks (aside from the usual six to eight in the nearby Brig parking lot). They included Tornado Potato, Chili Wagon, Vesuvio, Street Kitchen, Barbie's Q, The Flying Pig and Lardon.
One additional truck, The Pit Stop, a First Fridays regular since August, was parked on a side-street.
"We were worried we weren't allowed to park on Abbot Kinney," said Pit Stop owner Jim. He said he parked on Palms so as not to anger merchants or get in trouble with police.
Those trucks that did have the balls to stake out their usual spots all said the rest had been scared away by pissed-off merchants.
"I was nervous that even though there were no signs posted, they had some special-events permit -- because [City Councilman] Bill Rosendhal has been doing that for them," says Matt Gellar of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.
He says a bunch of the trucks didn't come because they didn't feel welcome: "Imagine going to work and someone's yelling at you. It can be really stressful."
[The following paragraph has been updated to disclude unverifiable hearsay. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.] The servers at Street Kitchen said they originally parked in front of a brick-and-mortar clothing boutique, at which the store manager told them they needed to move. However, the store owner now informs us that this is a completely false claim. The servers had alleged that -- because "we don't like to cause problems" -- they then moved down the block to the C'est Beau pop-up shop, whose owners, they said, are more friendly toward food trucks.
That seems to be the trend around here: Either you're pro-truck, or you're up in arms. Vince, the owner of Vesuvio, said a lady coming from Zingara Trading, just across the street, had been taking video footage of the trucks and telling them they shouldn't be there.Donna Humphrey, manager of Zingara and a member of the merchants committee, told us she didn't necessarily want the trucks completely gone -- just "not out there to the extent they were two Fridays ago; it was too hectic." (She also gave us delicious apple cider. Sweet.)
Matt Geller of the Mobile Food Vendors Association was there that night, too, hoping to settle the beef with some angry merchants. In the end, he says, "[They] were happy that some trucks were there -- well I wouldn't say happy, but they were OK with it."
Humphrey explained that the merchants committee, a sub-group of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, applied to the City of Los Angeles for the same street-parking ban as last month. However, it was rejected, and she's not sure why. (Gellar thinks it was a clerical error. We haven't been able to reach the Chamber of Commerce for comment.)
Still, because of the confusion, only seven street trucks showed up -- and merchants like Humphrey were glad to hear it.
Roman Barrett, a Venice resident who was eating at Street Kitchen, disagreed. He said the festival was "a million times better with the trucks." In the absence of parked cars and foot traffic spilling into the street from the mobile restaurants, according to Barrett, Abbot Kinney "turned into a freeway -- cars were just flying back and forth."
He also recalled that the Brig parking lot had been "mobbed" last month by hungry patrons with no option but to squeeze to the end of the Boulevard.
On Jan. 7, the chilly event was starkly under-attended. Every person we talked to had noticed the same -- and many blamed it on last month's ban of streetside food vendors.
"Eliminating food trucks is self-defeating for the merchants," said John Bowler, owner of Barbie's Q. "There's a lack of attendance now, from what I can tell." His truck has been setting up at First Fridays for a year and a half.
Zingara manager Humphrey said business is always a little slower in January.
Interestingly, Gellar says that 11 trucks normally present at Venice's event instead headed down to Westchester's version of First Fridays -- and "merchants there were excited to have them. They were getting a whole lot more business."
So what's the story for next month?
Gellar says he plans to sit down with the merchants sometime this week and hopefully figure this whole thing out once and for all.
"I'll talk to everybody if I have to," he says, "just to make sure that at the end of they day, if they say no, that three days later they're not going to send out a press release saying the opposite."
When asked if the LAPD was tasked with regulating the trucks, one lady cop on the sidewalk said, "We will be, once they figure out what they want us to regulate."