Oakland food truck debate rages at City Hall

Oakland is deciding whether to allow more lenient rules for mobile food vending.

Oakland is deciding whether to allow more lenient rules for mobile food vending.

During a contentious meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Oakland City Council’s Committee on Community and Economic Development debated whether or not to expand the boundaries where food trucks can do business throughout the city, as well as loosen some of the restrictions that govern where food trucks can park. After listening to impassioned speakers, including two city councilmembers, and an intense discussion within the committee, the committee decided to hold off on making a decision and push further discussion until next month.

Currently, mobile food vending in Oakland is regulated under a municipal code created in 2001, which restricts food trucks from selling anywhere outside of a designated area in East Oakland, which is mostly centered around International and Foothill Boulevards. But as the popularity of food trucks has grown throughout the Bay Area, many cities are considering new rules and permitting regulations.

On Tuesday, the Oakland committee considered a report detailing possible revisions to Oakland’s code, including a change that would allow both individual and clusters of vendors to sell in different areas throughout the city, including Jack London, Downtown, Temescal, Upper Broadway, the High Street Corridor, the Hegenberger Corridor and parts of MacArthur Boulevard. The amended code would also ease restrictions for selling near parks, schools and restaurants.

The report emphasized that the committee should come to a quick decision, ideally by July, so vendors could get permits for this summer’s high season.

Speakers during the open forum discussed the benefits of revamping the city’s code, including the idea that encouraging food trucks would increase jobs and promote entrepreneurship, along with addressing problems like illegal vending. Aletha Harper, coordinator for the Oakland Food Policy Council, said she was excited to see the report. “Implementing these ideas will promote food culture and food access,” she said, “and will promote home-grown food practices.”

But several of the speakers also brought up concerns with expanding the area where food trucks can operate. “We’re supportive of the nature of the carts,” said Mark Everton, executive director of Oakland Restaurant Association. “However, the restaurant association does have some concerns.” His concerns included competition with “brick and mortar” restaurants, food trucks not properly disposing of trash and recycling materials, and difficulties the city could have with enforcing permits, inspections and regulations. “We are also concerned about the transient nature, ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ aspect,” Everton said.

Shelly Garza, an organizer from Fruitvale-based La Placita, a group that helps food entrepreneurs and works with 40 mobile vendors, said that the first vendors to receive permits to work in the expanded areas should be the ones who have already been working in Oakland. “Don’t forget the pioneers who have done this,” Garza said. “Do not lock the vendors out who have been there. Without them, all of this wouldn’t have been possible.”

At the end of open forum, District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks, who represents part of East Oakland, demanded that the committee take her district out of any expansion plans. “We’ve got people setting up shop like they have real estate on sidewalks,” she said. “We have people with criminal backgrounds selling food to children.” She said her community members do not want mobile vendors in their neighborhoods. “We need to be more thoughtful in how we implement this program,” she said.

District 7 councilmember Larry Reid then echoed Brooks sentiments. He said he didn’t want his district, which is also in East Oakland, included in the expansion plan either, saying that mobile vendors bring crime and prostitution to the neighborhood. “It is insane for staff to recommend Hegenberger Corridor,” he said. “Allow me and my residents to continue to move forward.”

The committee members decided that they couldn’t make a decision yet and that more discussion was needed. “We’re clearly hearing mobile food vending can be a positive or a negative,” said District 2 councilmember Patricia Kernighan, who sits on the committee. “I think there are neighborhoods in Oakland that would want it.”

Nancy Nadel, councilmember from District 3, who also sits on the committee, suggested putting all the mobile vendors in one spot like the 16th Street train station in West Oakland. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship,” she said, “but we do have a burgeoning downtown restaurant business we don’t want to hurt.”

Committee chair Jane Brunner, who represents North Oakland on the council, was the most supportive of the program expansion. “There is a renaissance going on around Oakland in food and its incredibly successful,” she said. “We are nationally known as one of the hottest cities for food. When you’re a destination for food, people come to your area.”

Several of the new food trucks in the East Bay, like Localicious and Ebbett’s Good to Go, tend to congregate in Emeryville, which has looser vending regulations. When mobile vendors do park in Oakland, such as Jon’s Street Eats, Cupkates and Fiveten Burger, they tend to congregate in North Oakland or downtown.

Brunner said she understood the concerns about having more vendors in East Oakland and that maybe the expansion should just include neighborhoods like Temescal, which has residents that are open to allowing vendors. “We need to look at it from both sides,” Brunner said. “Is having more vendors going to help or hurt?”

The expansion of Oakland’s mobile food vending program will be brought up for discussion again at the next meeting of the Community and Economic Development Committee on June 14.

10 Comments

  1. Elizabeth August

    Localicious is no longer vending.

  2. Can you clarify that the current law “restricts food trucks from selling anywhere outside of a designated area in East Oakland”, and yet there are several trucks that openly operate and advertise in other parts of the city?

  3. Lori Zook

    It’s great that council members are taking many factors into account, and trying to come up with solutions, but designing a regulation that limits “mobile” food to one specific block or neighborhood in Oakland certainly renders the use of the word “mobile” pretty meaningless. If people are patronizing these businesses, it indicates that there is a need and support for them within the community. They pay permit fees, and retail taxes and the city should encourage this, not hamstring it.

  4. tony

    I’m baffled at Councilmember Reid’s comment that mobile vendors would bring crime and prostitution to a neighborhood. Would a taco or ice cream truck really do that?

    Welcome back Jon’s Street Eats!

  5. I wonder if the city council has read the state vehicle code – specifically the part that says, in no uncertain words, that municipalities absolutely MAY NOT make any rule that bars where and when a mobile vendor may do business on public roads within the state of California, unless it is a threat to public health or safety?

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