New mobile vending proposal could create “food pods” throughout Oakland
on December 6, 2011
Mobile food—embraced, nurtured and institutionalized by culinary capitals like San Francisco and Berkeley—remains a guerilla industry in Oakland.
Severely regulated by city policy and generally vilified by brick and mortar restaurant owners, many Oakland street food entrepreneurs have abandoned their own streets altogether, in favor of peddling their fare in less strict cities nearby. The popular Oakland burger truck, Doc’s of the Bay spends most days slinging food in San Francisco, and those who have stayed are now part of the local food industry’s underbelly—where pushcarts peddle under the radar, trucks operate without permits, and hardly anybody ever checks to see whether their favorite taco truck has its business tax and health certificates in order.
But a new pilot program championed by Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Jane Brunner would begin to legitimize Oakland’s largely underground street food businesses. And despite of years of contention, supporters and critics of mobile food seem to agree that the proposed program could be a boon to business, bolstering the mobile food industry while minimizing competition with dine-in restaurants.
“The goal is to enable the growth of this key industry, and allow for the job creation and opportunity that this can bring,” said Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan at a press conference and food truck event held outside Oakland City Hall Tuesday to promote her new street food proposal.
The proposed program—a city ordinance council members will vote on at their meeting Tuesday evening—would make it easier for vendors to form “food pods,” groups of two or more mobile businesses clustered at a single location. If the program is approved by the city council, mobile vendors would be allowed to set up shop in North Oakland as well as parts of West Oakland and the Hills.
Oakland had a chance to sample one such food pod this summer, with Bites Off Broadway, a weekly mobile food event that began illegally, like so many street food businesses in Oakland. Karen Hester, the Bites Off Broadway organizer, first set up the event in June, without permits and in plain defiance of the city’s hotly- debated vending regulations. Under Oakland’s current rules, permitted mobile food vendors are confined to doing business in certain small sections of Fruitvale and East Oakland and may not gather outside those areas without special permission from the city.
Hester did it anyway, and the events proved so popular among Temescal neighborhood residents that city officials decided to sanction them—at least temporarily..
“Bites Off Broadway…it was an incredible program,” said Councilmember Jane Brunner (District 5) at Tuesday’s press conference. “But it was illegal. Us going to that event was an illegal action. Oakland is in a food renaissance. So we really needed to step up and make it a legal action.”
The city gave Hester special event permits to continue Bites Off Broadway through the fall. The program Kaplan and Brunner are proposing now would enable individual vendors (or event organizers like Hester) to create food pods like Bites Off Broadway throughout the city. One person—whoever is organizing the event— would apply for a single permit, on behalf of a group of vendors, and pay a $600 fee. The permit would cover all participating vendors, and the fee, presumably, would be split between them.
The caveats: All participating vendors must have business tax and health certificates, and the food pods may not set up near dine-in restaurants. Instead, they would aim to create foot traffic in areas where restaurants and other food options are scarce.
Fortunately, Oakland is full of neighborhoods that lack access to prepared food. But the city’s current mobile vending programs—implemented in 2001 and amended in 2004, specifically with taco trucks and push carts in mind in 2004—relegate food trucks and pushcarts to certain stretches of International and Foothills Boulevards and a few other streets thereabouts. Exceptions to the rule are complicated and expensive, and involve an arduous applications process that sends many a potential vendor running.
The proposed program would not solve that issue, but some street food vendors nevertheless say the initiative would give them a legitimate avenue to operate and grow their businesses outside of East Oakland.
“It will make a huge difference,” said Tina Ramos, the owner of a pop-up food stand called Tina Tamale, and a regular Bites Off Broadway vendor. Participating in that food pod event, she said, boosted her business, which went from operating a few times a year (due to city restrictions) to four times a month.
The additional revenue, in turn, helped her to sustain La Borinqueña, her family’s longstanding brick- and- mortar restaurant near Lake Merritt, which has suffered declining sales in recent years.
“I was not able to recoup that loss entirely,” Ramos said, but because of her Bites Off Broadway sales, she was able to carry 10 to 15 percent of the family business’s revenue on her own.
Many restaurant owners would similarly like to use mobile vending to supplement their flagging on-site sales, she said, but they don’t want to invest $20,000 to $70,000 in a vehicle, unless they’re certain they can operate it legally in Oakland.
The security and consistency provided by a food pod program could be a tipping point for potential mobile vendors, she contends.
Shelly Garza, the general manager of Rising Sun Entrepreneurs—which trains and supports street food vendors in Fruitvale—has pushed for mobile vending reform in Oakland for years.
“Allowing food pods in districts 1 through 4 works out an economic development muscle that has been underused for many, many years,” Garza said at the press event on Tuesday. “Mobile vendors provide a steady employment stream for Oaklanders. These pods can truly, truly massage the economy of Oakland.”
Jason Overman, Kaplan’s communications director, echoed the point. “Mobile food vending is going to be a really critical part of the our strategy for economic revitalization,” he said, “We’ve been seeing it in other cities, and there’s a lot of interest in our community.”
The Oakland Restaurant Association is on board with the proposal, too, despite opposing past attempts to loosen mobile vending policies in Oakland.
Mark Everton, the association’s chairman and the general manager of Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Jack London Square, has been a vocal critic of the way food trucks operate in Oakland, and has been particularly outspoken about food trucks, with their low overheads and tiny cooking staffs, competing with brick and mortar restaurants.
“That’s competition, and that’s life, and we’re not asking for a price structure to be set,” Everton said in a phone interview, “We just want a level playing field. We’re just asking that they’re permitted, that they’re paying their taxes and that they’re paying their employees at least minimum wage like the rest of us.”
From his perspective, food pods are a happy compromise. When food trucks agree to regularly locate themselves together, he reasons, they would be easier to regulate, they would sustain one another by drawing pedestrian traffic and—most importantly—they wouldn’t compete with dine-in restaurants. “We’re very much in favor of this,” he said. “If one popped up in downtown, that would be great.”
Food pods could even indirectly support brick and mortar restaurants, said Ed Manase, a project manager with the City of Oakland and one of the authors of the food pod proposal.
“The whole intention of this program is that the pods will bring additional pedestrian traffic and will have a spillover effect on businesses in the area,” Manase said. “It’s not meant to compete.”
Food pods aren’t for everyone, however.
Roland Robles, the owner and chef of a food truck called Fiveten Burger, runs his business without official permits—regularly setting up shop outside a few bars whose owners welcome him, and a comfortable distance from restaurants whose owners might complain to the police. He’s not interested in food pods, he said, because he prefers the bars and crowds he already serves, rather than organized events. So he doesn’t expect Kaplan and Brunner’s program to affect him much, if it’s approved.
“But if I could go downtown to a spot, if I could open my doors earlier and be more flashy about it, and not have to worry about it, that would make me happy,” Robles said. “I wouldn’t have to operate under the radar.” He said he hopes the food pod program will eventually lead to more generalized permitting that would give him the freedom to vend where he wishes, and still operate above-board.
If Manase and his team have their way, he may have the chance. Manase and other city staff are working on a comprehensive mobile food vending policy that they expect to introduce in the spring. The food pod program at the table right now would expire in 2013 and would be a step towards adopting that broader set of regulations.
At the press conference, Bites Off Broadway founder Karen Hester summed up her hopes for comprehensive reform this way: “Let’s bring mobile food to the masses,” she said, to a smattering of applause outside of City of Hall. “Let them eat cake—and paella, Korean tacos, samosas and all the rest!”
Update: The Oakland City Council unanimously voted in favor of the food pod ordinance at Tuesday night’s council meeting.
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