CASTRO VALLEY -- Are food trucks a creative way to bring new customers to an area, or do they steal customers from struggling brick-and-mortar restaurants? Both sides of the argument were heard -- loudly -- when the idea was floated at a merchants brainstorming session.
"Food trucks are a customer attraction," Bill Lambert, Alameda County's economic development assistant director, told a group of about 50 merchants and civic leaders who gathered Friday at Knudsen's Ice Creamery on Castro Valley Boulevard.
His comment prompted a profanity from Tom Kokezas of Tom & Tina's Deli on Redwood Road, who said the trucks take customers from restaurants.
Phil Woodman, co-founder of Food Truck Mafia, said that would have been his reaction 10 years ago. "I own brick and mortar, and I own food trucks. I get it. Restaurants are a tough business, and you have to evolve," he said.
He said he and his partners own Cahoots Burgers & BBQ in Hayward, Dino's Family Restaurant in Fremont and Sinodinos steak house in Newark, in addition to Pizza Pimps and Truckin Sweet food trucks.
Woodman said Food Truck Mafia does not profit from the gourmet food-truck gatherings it organizes. "We give back to the community; we don't keep any of the money," he said.
Last year, the mafia donated $175,000, which was paid by food trucks to be part of the weekly markets. He said he only makes money from his truck.
Lambert, who invited Woodman to speak to the merchants, said that if the trucks came to Castro Valley, perhaps the proceeds could be used to help market the community. The weekly visit by the trucks would be on a slow night for restaurants, either Tuesday or Wednesday. It would be in the parking lot at the vacant Daughtrey Building on Castro Valley Boulevard.
Retired restaurant owner J.D. Kitchel was not convinced, saying he is opposed to food trucks, which do not pay property taxes and are not actively involved in the community. "All the businesses in Castro Valley are struggling now, and there are only so many customers," he said.
Woodman maintained that the trucks bring new customers; the average truck has at least 1,000 followers on social media, and some have 15,000. And some of those people follow the trucks from site to site.
"Three weeks into it, there will be at least 500 people in your community who wouldn't be here otherwise," Woodman said. "I know there's a lot of concern. I'm not here to sell the idea of food trucks; we have about six cities waiting for us."
The food trucks would be a gift, drawing young adults to Castro Valley, said Dr. Andrew Moffatt of Groveway Veterinary Hospital. "On Tuesday nights, I've driven through this area, and it's dead as a cemetery," he said.
The comments went back and forth, until finally Lambert asked for a vote on having food trucks on a trial basis. An overwhelming number raised their hands in support. A group of volunteers will now work on details of the food trucks and other marketing ideas.
One of those volunteering is Christine Clement of the bakery Swiss Delices on Santa Maria Avenue.
"I'm absolutely for the trucks," she said. "They will bring more people into town, who will see all of our businesses."