Oakland: Food Trucks Prohibited

Bites Off Broadway - Stephen Loewinsohn

By John Birdsall | EastBayExpress.com

Hearing Room 3 at Oakland City Hall has windows that look out onto skateboarders and office workers headed for BART, but on this Wednesday afternoon — the last day of August — it seems oddly cut off from the street. That’s ironic, given the purpose of today’s meeting, called by the strategic planning wing of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency. That’s because the proposals that come out of this room in a little more than two hours from now have the potential to change Oakland residents’ relationship to the street for a long, long time.

It was more than two years ago that the city council directed the agency to look at Oakland’s 2001 mobile vending ordinance and recommend changes. Today’s meeting of more than a dozen people — Oakland administrators, leaders of business improvement districts, event organizers, even a couple of food truck owners — caps months of inquiries, hearings, studies, and reports. And, as another summer sets on Oakland’s restrictive mobile vending rules, not a single reform has been implemented.

That has Elizabeth August, seated at the U-shaped configuration of tables in Hearing Room 3, visibly pissed off. Organizer of the Oakland Mobile Food Group and a food vendor herself, August is among the “key stakeholders” (according to Ed Manasse, the strategic planning office’s project manager, the wonk tasked with gathering information and making recommendations to the city council) in the slow crawl toward reform. Mild-mannered and patient, Manasse looks like the kind of guy who’d be coaching his daughter’s soccer team and never raise his voice, the kind of policy expert who seems to inhabit his own beige-tinted bubble. That’s in contrast to the perennially vocal, always excitable August, only today she’s silent, arms crossed, head down, holding her fire.

“Bless Ed Manasse,” August told me a week earlier, at the end of an exhausting, ultimately pointless day spent trying to convince city officials to endorse a trial food-truck pod for city parks. “But it’s not going anywhere.”

It is, however, going everywhere across the country. While Oakland has been dithering over street-food reform, food trucks nationwide have blown up as big as eighteen-wheelers: Glossy magazines hail Portland’s food-pod paradise; the Food Network has turned them into reality TV via The Great Food Truck Race; even the porn industry is on board. Earlier this year, an adult film producer used LA’s Flying Pig truck as the set for a porno depicting a crew of young women who, uh, found success after bringing their tacos to the street. It marked food trucks turning a major corner in American life, from gritty urban necessity to cultural inevitability.

Bites Off Broadway - Stephen Loewinsohn

Neighboring cities are also far ahead of Oakland in adjusting to this new reality. Across the bay, Matt Cohen, an aspiring street-food vendor, became a consultant for other aspiring mobile vendors, and then convinced the cash-strapped Rec and Park Department to let him launch a few weekly food-truck pods called Off the Grid in city parks. They were so successful it convinced the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in early 2010 to rewrite SF’s mobile vending ordinance, opening up every city neighborhood to potential vendors and taking permitting authority out of the hands of police and giving it to the Department of Public Works — a gesture signaling that street food was no longer a law-enforcement issue, but a civic amenity.

Emeryville’s 1981 mobile vending ordinance put few restrictions on truck vendors. And then when a new crop of trucks started appearing on city streets to cater to office workers at lunch, the city assembled an advisory board of truck proprietors, brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, public officials, and citizens to recommend changes that would protect restaurants without outlawing trucks. In part, the new law clarified distance requirements between food trucks and restaurants, and from one truck to another. Participants — including food truck owner Gail Lillian — said the process was a model of civility and good governance.

But, Oakland, once a pioneer in the fast-growing world of street food, still treats most mobile vendors as if they’re scofflaws. Even though food trucks are common in the city, most are operating illegally.

And today’s meeting in Hearing Room 3 represents yet another sad turn for Oakland. It would be one thing if the city’s ambivalence were only a matter of missing some small window for the zeitgeist to slip through. But its failure to accommodate legal street food outside the current lonchera zone in Fruitvale has had the effect of thwarting entrepreneurship for hard-working citizens with limited access to capital, the very small-business startups Oakland’s city leaders pay lip service to. It’s not just sad. It’s tragic.

Tragic because of street food’s potential to make cities more livable. In the spring and summer of 2009, it was clear that there was something happening in San Francisco, as a small group of home-based cooks took first to Twitter, then to the streets of the Mission with carts or folding tables, selling food that ranged from chai to Filipino adobo.

The events that summer felt more like parties than food festivals, and since many vendors were anxious about potential police shutdowns, they also had a whiff of underground. The weekly gatherings also managed to achieve that most cliché of progressive urban goals: They built community. People who’d never eaten on the street before, who weren’t in the habit of lonchera-grazing in Fruitvale, or taking a chance — even drunk — on a late-night bacon-wrapped hot dog seared on a battered baking sheet over propane, were suddenly experiencing urban outdoor space in a new way.

By the spring of 2010, when street food’s primary expression in San Francisco jumped to trucks, a new subculture had found a place in the city’s culinary life. It appealed to eaters generally younger than those with the kind of checking-account balance that makes an $80 dinner at a neighborhood bistro a regular possibility. And other observers have pointed out that street food is a peculiarly democratic medium: Dude with the big bank balance is waiting in line for his sisig tacos same as you, and has to perch his ass just as uncomfortably as yours to find a place to sit and enjoy them.

Today, street food has become an important feature of life in San Francsico, especially for those in their twenties and the relatively affluent. That’s precisely the demographic Berkeley’s North Shattuck Merchant’s Association hoped to attract to an aging Gourmet Ghetto, when it collaborated with Cohen to launch an East Bay version of Off the Grid. These days as many as 3,000 people flood the area on Wednesday nights to eat from food trucks. Far from draining business from brick and mortars, the long lines for Off the Grid mean many become discouraged, and end up grabbing a pizza at the Cheeseboard, or a sandwich at Saul’s Deli. There, trucks aren’t in competition with restaurants: They’re helping them survive.

In short, legal street food can be good for the life of a city, good for expanding a region’s pool of dining customers, and good for encouraging entrepreneurship — hell, three goals most Oaklanders would likely vote for if sealed up tight and presented as a bond measure.

Except, of course, for anyone who sees street food as a scourge. Just how many are in the scourge camp became painfully clear to street-food supporters like Elizabeth August the last time Ed Manasse presented his recommendations for writing a new street-food ordinance before the whole city council.

Back in May, Manasse presented a series of changes to the city’s regulations, scheduled to kick in over two phases. To anyone with even a mild fondness for taco trucks or organized food pods, they seemed like rational reforms: opening up the city to mobile vending, reducing separation requirements from vendors to parks and schools, shifting enforcement from the police to a new administrator whose position would be funded by permit fees. On the other hand, pretty much anyone who saw food trucks as a threat to brick-and-mortar businesses, or as facilitators of crimes ranging from drug dealing to gang banging, was horrified.

The Oakland Restaurant Association and Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce felt like Manasse’s office had essentially ambushed them with the proposed changes, without time to offer considered feedback. “When they came back to the economic development committee back in May, they were expressing things like, ‘We were hoping we could have this in place by the summer,'” recalled Paul Junge, the chamber’s public policy director. “I think members of the business districts and the restaurant association both, I think they felt like, ‘Gosh, we wish we could have had more conversations, earlier conversations.'”

Junge’s members weren’t buying it. Street-food epiphanies and the lives of cities? Nice bullshit, dude. Brick-and-mortar owners were more concerned about paying mortgages, dealing with taxes, and worrying about all the vacant storefronts in their districts, and the thought of some asshole truck pulling up to the curb out front and draining off customers? It wasn’t going to happen like that. Not if they had any say in the matter. Turns out they did.

Manasse the wonk had done a good job coming up with a rational set of reforms, but he’d failed to sell them. Maybe that’s not surprising, given the schizophrenia on the city council. Councilwoman Desley Brooks and council President Larry Reid, who both represent East Oakland, said no way, according to August. “They were like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. There are too many problems here with safety, with prostitution, with drugs. We need to look at this in a more detailed way with key stakeholders.'”

Worries about crime aren’t unfounded. Many loncheras in East Oakland do business until midnight or later, and do find themselves magnets for illegal activity. Hell, park a bookmobile at San Leandro Street and 85th Avenue at 2 a.m. some Saturday and things are guaranteed to get a little sketchy. Fatal shootings occurred near taco trucks parked in East Oakland in both 2008 and 2009, and Fruitvale’s association of lonchera owners has worked with police to try to prevent things from getting ugly — removing tables to prevent loitering, installing lighting, even calling police when they notice something shady going down. A food-truck pod in Temescal might be safe, but how do you allow that without also opening the door to increased risk in other parts of the city, especially in a time of strained police resources?

Even a street-food supporter like Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan recognized that Manasse had bobbled the opportunity for reform, certainly in time for the vending primetime of summer. “The broadness of the ideas was the problem,” said Ada Chan, policy analyst for Kaplan. “Reb had recommended from the beginning that staff not do that, but maybe pick a few specific areas that could be supported. Let the vendors be successful in a few limited areas, and then expand it.”

In other words, instead of reforming from the top down, Manasse’s office should have recommended starting with a test case — something like Berkeley’s Off the Grid, perhaps — and built from there.

Six miles from Hearing Room 3 and Oakland City Hall today, food trucks are setting up on Shattuck for the weekly Off the Grid in North Berkeley. Thousands of people are expected to attend, willingly enduring long lines for Filipino lumpia from the hand of a restaurant chef, Amsterdam-style falafel, and thickly frosted cupcakes.

But a regular weekly event like Berkeley’s Off the Grid is still illegal in Alameda County’s largest and most diverse city (excepting, of course, Bites Off Broadway, which I’ll explain later). Illegal, too, are solo trucks and pushcarts plying any artery not in Fruitvale’s sanctioned vending zone, a narrow strip along International Boulevard and across its major offshoots. Oakland’s street-food ordinance was progressive back in 2001, when the city became one of the first on the West Coast to legally sanction a limited expression of street food. That’s thanks to Fruitvale organizer Emilia Otero and her success in bending the ear of Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente. First pushcart vendors, then lonchera operators, got the chance to go legit. Many did.

The ordinance was called the Pilot Program — still is. It’s an exemption carved out in recognition of Fruitvale’s ties to Mexico, where food stalls don’t always conform to the neat distinction between restaurant and street vendor, and where hawking a few pieces of homegrown fruit on a civic plaza can represent entry-level entrepreneurship. The ordinance was tweaked in 2004, in part to clarify the proper distance between food trucks and brick-and-mortars.

Even under the Pilot Program, taco trucks (aka loncheras) are restricted to private lots — no truck can open its side flap on the public right-of-way, otherwise known as the curb. That’s more than a challenge for any district as crowded as Fruitvale — it’s a de facto restriction, both limiting the number of new vendors and thwarting the expansion of existing ones.

What Oakland did a decade ago had the effect of ghettoizing street food. Today, what seems like Fruitvale’s vibrant expression of Latino street culture, with multiple loncheras, tamale carts, and pushcart fruit vendors on every block for a mile, is also proof of the Pilot Program’s limits, since that very saturation means lower profits for everyone. It’s a sign, too, of zero enforcement of the rules. Oakland police are tasked with weeding out unpermitted vendors in Fruitvale. Given the department’s priorities these days, good luck with that — especially on weekends, when unlicensed carts flood the streets, to the frustration of legal operators.

They’re the same vendors who’ve played by the rules, some of them since the Pilot Program took flight a decade ago. Shelly Garza considers them Oakland pioneers. Hell, she considers them West Coast pioneers.

A former Oakland city worker, Garza is the daughter of Emilia Otero, whom some vendors view as the Rosa Parks of legitimizing Oakland street food. Together in 2008, mother and daughter founded Rising Sun Entrepreneurs in the heart of Fruitvale. Like San Francisco food-business incubator La Cocina, Rising Sun mentors vendors, especially native Spanish speakers who need extra help navigating the choppy waters of city and county permitting (unlike La Cocina, though, Rising Sun is a for-profit company). Garza’s frustration was palpable as she spoke with me in her office at Rising Sun’s headquarters on Fruitvale Boulevard. It’s in a rambling Edwardian house called La Placita, three stories above Rising Sun’s basement commercial kitchen, where pushcart vendors were prepping food for next morning.

Like nearly everyone who has an interest in expanding Oakland street food Garza shakes her head over the slow pace of reform. “It doesn’t seem that complicated to make it work,” she said. “Why isn’t it done after two years?”

Garza believes that vendors who have labored under the Pilot Program should be first in line for permits if and when the city council opens up the rest of Oakland for mobile vending. Head of the line, in Garza’s perfect world, would no doubt be Primitivo Guzman, the guy credited with launching Oakland’s first taco truck, El Zamorano, in the early 1980s, long before street vending was even legal here.

Garza is one of the key stakeholders at the U-shaped table in Hearing Room 3 today. She arrives late, a flash of flower-print skirt as she sweeps in. You can sense her frustration, much like Elizabeth August’s. Garza feels like she and her mom, Emilia Otero, plus longtime taqueros like Guzman have all paid their dues with the city. But to be at the same table with outsiders, essentially, guys like Off the Grid organizer Cohen, who made his reputation in San Francisco less than two years ago, and who now has his sights on cracking the golden egg of Oakland’s street-food business?

The problem here is that cities that once sent policy wonks out to meet Otero to study Fruitvale’s lonchera experiment have managed to surpass Oakland in figuring out how to do street food. That includes San Francisco, Emeryville, and now – in a limited way with Off the Grid – Berkeley. For many vendors whose businesses are based in Oakland, who live in Oakland, and who want to do business legally in Oakland (beyond, say, first Fridays at Art Murmur), they’re screwed. No choice but to steer their trucks to neighboring municipalities.

One of those vendors is Gail Lillian, who launched the Liba Falafel truck in 2009 with regular spots both in Emeryville and San Francisco. Lillian was inspired by Amsterdam’s mobile falafel wagons, and her bright green truck spangled with mod-looking flowers and blades of grass struck a chord with the city’s youngish crowd of street-food fans. But despite the fact that Lillian considers Liba to be an Oakland business (she lives in Oakland and has her business address here, though she rents kitchen prep space in Berkeley), she can’t legally do business in her own city.

“I’m eager to serve my community,” Lillian said. “I’m immensely proud to be an Oakland business, and I really want to be able to get into Oakland.” It wouldn’t be for lack of trying. At one point, Lillian tried what so many other food vendors do each day in Oakland — she started selling here anyway, without a permit. Lillian parked her truck in front of Snow Park on Harrison Street at 19th Street. But, she said, “somebody came over and complained from a restaurant I didn’t know existed and said, ‘I know my rights and I’m going to call the cops.'” Lillian packed up and left, and she hasn’t been back, though she sells monthly at the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, weekly at Off the Grid Berkeley, and a couple of times a week in Emeryville. Think of it as Oakland’s loss.

Denied the ability to sell legally in Oakland, Fist of Flour’s James Whitehead decided to do it anyway. Whitehead has a health permit from the county and an Oakland business license, and does all his food prep in a licensed facility (La Placita’s basement kitchen, in fact). But the mustachioed, blunt-talking Whitehead considers himself part of an Oakland pride movement that’s given life to everything from the Oaklandish shop to a reboot of the city’s annual LGBT march.

“I’m dedicated to Oakland and reviving Oakland’s food scene,” Whitehead said outside Temescal cheese shop the Sacred Wheel, where one Saturday a month he sets up the wood-burning pizza oven he built himself. He sets up illegally on the curb, though it’s at the invitation of store owner Jena Davidson Hood. “It’s all here,” Whitehead said, meaning Oakland. “I don’t want to go to San Francisco or Berkeley. And I got nothing against San Francisco, but we don’t need their trucks coming here.”

Elizabeth August talks a similar language of Oakland boosterism. Indeed, it was the crucible of Art Murmur — that most quintessential of Oakland events — where August forged any street-food cred she can now lay claim to. Nearly three years ago, she helped the monthly happening in Uptown morph from a semi-anarchic cluster of home-based tamale makers, pot truffle dudes, and vegan burrito rollers to a legit food pod, small as it is. The Oakland City Council issued a resolution to grant the Murmur a special permit to operate a mobile food event, sort of like the ones that sanction cooked food vendors at farmers’ markets.

As 2010 dawned, August and her husband, Corey Stowe, became vendors themselves, via Guerrilla Grub. (Stowe sold breakfast burritos from a cart at MacArthur BART, till pressured by the existing hot dog vendor to blow.) And this year August launched the Oakland Mobile Food Group, whose acronym is a plausible expression of her frustration with the pace of mobile-food reform. Her original idea was to rally a group of Oakland-based vendors who would both appear at OMFG events, and collectively lobby the city council and administrative staff to write a new street-food ordinance.

August’s pitch (and plea for a membership fee) fell with a thud, but that didn’t stop her from doing something less ambitious, aiming to become a sort of mini Matt Cohen, organizing any street-food events she could. In just a few months she’s been moderately successful, collaborating with Shelly Garza’s Rising Sun to run a mobile food pod in a Coliseum parking lot during Raider Nation tailgating sessions, mounting a weekly Thursday lunch in the parking lot of an office building near Jack London Square, and landing the food-truck contract for annual events such as Oaktoberfest.

A week before the meeting in Hearing Room 3, I sat down with August in a cafe, on a day when she’s gotten some bad news. Her proposal to organize food pods on a trial basis in Oakland parks — the very limited areas Councilwoman Kaplan’s policy wonk, Ada Chan, was talking about — had run into the brick wall of city bureaucracy. August envisioned some Off the Grid-like weekly event highlighting Oakland-based vendors like Gail Lillian and James Whitehead, in Mosswood Park, maybe, certainly at Lake Merritt. “A trial run for just parks,” August said, “something easy to manage, and do it just for three months.”

But what August heard from Ed Manasse and others was that, under current rules that prohibit vending within 500 feet of city parks, she’d have to petition seven different agencies for approval, file a ten-page double-sided application with Zoning and Planning, file another application (with a check for $2,400 attached) for a conditional use permit, and then make an appointment to request formal project review (average lead time: two to three months). And even then it’s not guaranteed she’d even stand a chance of being green-lighted.

“Are you kidding me?” August said, pulling a couple of thick stacks of applications out of her bag. “Right now I’m completely discouraged by the lack of ownership at the city council level.”

Even so, August thinks she has some leverage now that didn’t exist at the beginning of the summer, a precedent the city set, something outside the endless meetings and updates of Manasse’s office, something even the chamber of commerce or the various business improvement districts didn’t have to sign off on. Something called Bites Off Broadway.

The afternoon’s slowly sinking into evening here in Temescal, where about a dozen trucks have set up on 45th Street, along the curb that banks the grass setback in front of Studio One. If anyone needed convincing about the ability of a mobile-food pod to get people to gather on the street, this is it: families straggling in from surrounding streets, Temescal dudes with black plastic eyewear, dog walkers who may or may not have come here intentionally. Matt Cohen, Shelly Garza, Elizabeth August: Anybody who’s been frustrated by the impossibility of doing street food outside the Pilot Program zone hasn’t been able to do what Bites Off Broadway organizer Karen Hester has managed to do here, more or less quietly, since early June.

Hester is a curious case. She looks like your aunt who loves to go day hiking in the hills: sunburned face, athletic sandals, and a propensity for fleece. Through her events company, Hesternet Productions, she’s used to organizing annual gatherings like street fairs and festivals, and she self-identifies as a community organizer without much particular interest in communities beyond Rockridge and Temescal. The latter is where Hester lives, in a cohousing compound – one that happens to be just across the street from the first locale for Bites, back when it was called Bites On Broadway.

The original plan for Bites was to site it in the deep plaza in front of Oakland Technical High School on Broadway, back when Elizabeth August was on board as Hester’s co-organizer. The idea was to do something that felt as much like a weekly street fair as a straight-up food pod, with family games, entertainment – maybe even art shows from Oakland Tech students.

But when it became clear that the school district wasn’t on board (Hester said she had something like verbal approval from administrators at Oakland Tech), and Bites On Broadway wouldn’t have permission to set up on campus, August — as well as several vendors — decided to decamp.

Faced with no permission, and no way to get a permit to operate on the street, Hester did what no other food-pod organizer had the balls to try before. She just did it, guerilla-style, on 45th Street at Broadway, and used the boggy north lawn of the high school as a place where people could hang out and eat. With no permission from anybody. “If there had been a policy to fit into, I would have applied for it,” Hester says. She says her idea all along, after seeing the success of the mini food pod at Art Murmur, was to bring vendors to the food desert of Broadway.

Now, tagging Temescal or nearby Piedmont Avenue as a food desert is a stretch, to say the least, but Hester did manage to bring palpable excitement Friday nights to a part of the neighborhood where pedestrians are scarce. Did that also put vendors in a vulnerable situation? It did — though, judging from guys like James Whitehead of Fist of Flour, operating outside the law is something of a calculated risk.

After three weeks, the police shut it down. A neighbor — maybe two — complained, Hester says, though she’s not sure what the specific beef was (maybe noise from generators, maybe street congestion, maybe just because a lot of Oakland residents don’t like change).

Within a week Hester met with the police, and with Arturo Sanchez, assistant to the city administrator. By the following week she had a custom special event permit: six vendors, once a week through October 21, on the curb outside Studio One — Oakland park property, it should be noted, though Bites sets up in the public right-of-way. Ed Manasse must have cursed when he heard about it: After all the work he’s done — all the meetings like the one in Hearing Room 3 — after all the heat staff took after last May’s fail, when reform proposals fell in the council chamber with a thud, all it took to set a precedent for food pods was a woman who claimed she didn’t even know she was supposed to file an application with the Alameda County Health Department. It’s hard to tell if Hester is clueless or calculating. Whatever she is, she’s managed to open the door, at least a crack, for expanded street food in Oakland.

Hester says she plans to do Bites Off Broadway again next year, though she’s thinking of starting it up again earlier than June, maybe once the rains stop. She says she doesn’t have any ambitions to be like Matt Cohen — some big promoter of food pods — though if it were possible, maybe she’d consider organizing a street-food night at Mosswood Park, precisely where Elizabeth August has her sights set. “It would bring the neighborhood together,” Hester says.

As for bringing the city together over some broad agreement about expanding mobile vending, even Hester seems incapable of that. Back in Hearing Room 3, Ed Manasse explains that, after the failure to sell his reform plan in May, it means several more months of writing reports, circulating proposals, and listening to feedback. Best-case scenario, Oakland might be able to have a new ordinance by spring.

Then again, maybe not.