Food trucks have a long history in San Diego, but it was only within the past decade that they became technically “legal” to operate within the City’s zoning and land use regulations.

A food truck is a mobile kitchen or catering truck that sells food to the public. For many years, such businesses had fallen in a sort of gray zone.

“I know it sounds strange, since we’ve seen food trucks everywhere for decades, but the City zoning did not have any language that allowed them to operate on public or private property,” said Marco Polo Cortes, who was retained by the United Association of Food Trucks of San Diego (UAFTSD) to represent them in their efforts to achieve clarity in regulations.

The State of California governs food trucks under the California Retail Food Code (Cal Code), which is implemented locally by the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health. Like restaurants, food trucks are inspected and issued a health letter grade, and their employees must be trained in food safety. In addition to State law, these businesses may also be regulated by cities as to where they can operate.

clams with salsa and avocados

Mexican “mariscos,” featuring seafood such as almejas (clams), are among the unique and delicious fare offered by San Diego’s hundreds of food trucks.

 

For many years, San Diego’s zoning remained silent on areas for food trucks. The zoning did not allow them, but it didn’t ban them outright, either.

But that all changed in 2013, when the owners of food trucks were blindsided with the City’s strict enforcement of a new policy that appeared aimed at shutting down all food trucks on private property. The new policy set an arbitrary 3-hour limit for food trucks to operate in an area per day. Food truck owners deemed in violation were ordered by Neighborhood Code Enforcement officers to close and threatened with fines of up to $2,500 per day.

“Food trucks are a part of the culture of San Diego and our industry was coming under attack,” said Cruz Vasquez, President of the UAFTSD and owner of the Mariscos El Pescador food truck. “We knew we had to take action, and we called on Marco Polo Cortes and sought his expertise.”

The threat to the industry meant nearly 500 people were at risk of losing their jobs.

“I walked into a room with 25 food truck operators and saw a look of fear in men and women’s eyes, and it scared me,” Cortes said. “They had families to support, rent and bills to pay. They asked me to help them, and I committed to be their advocate.”

Representing UAFTSD, Marco Polo Cortes collaborated with the law firm Higgs, Fletcher & Mack to design a proposed ordinance and present it to the City. They sought to establish new regulations for mobile food trucks to clarify where mobile food trucks are allowed to operate, which land use regulations apply, and what permit is required.

As part of the strategy, a lawsuit was filed by UAFTSD. A Superior Court judge sided with UAFTSD and issued an order that prevented Code Enforcement from shutting down more food trucks while new rules were pending.

The effort led by Cortes included multiple steps including consultation with City staff and consideration by the City’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee before being presented to the San Diego City Council.

On March 3, 2014, the San Diego City Council unanimously approved the ordinance – finally allowing food trucks to operate with clear rules in the City of San Diego.

“We were all elated because people’s livelihoods and jobs were saved,” said Marco Polo Cortes.

Building on the success with the City of San Diego’s ordinance, Cortes also assisted with a similar ordinance in the City of Chula Vista, which was adopted in 2018.

Today, the San Diego County food truck industry is thriving, with new business models and concepts hitting the streets each year and online locator services for those in search of a bite.

“With Marco Polo’s guidance, we were able to achieve clear regulatory guidance for food trucks in the City of San Diego,” Vasquez said. “We recommend him highly as a small-business advocate who gets results.”