It’s becoming an increasingly familiar sight in large cities around the country: specialty chefs selling artisan and exotic foods from mobile food carts and trucks on the cities’ streets.
Some cities, such as Portland, Ore., where as many as 500 carts work the streets to feed hungry residents, have embraced the phenomenon and crafted special legislation to foster its development. Others, like Chicago and Sacramento, which has all but banned them entirely, clearly don’t know what to do with the mobile vendors and seem more intent on tightly controlling them or blocking them outright.
Then there’s San Francisco, which has taken a slightly different, if not complicated, approach.
In a city as famous for food as it is for its earthquakes and bridges, mobile food is picking up steam in the form of trucks and food carts, pushed by their operators to locations around town. The vendors – often trained culinary professionals in their own right but not always – frequently offer dishes new to experienced San Francisco palates. Many, however, operate without the proper permits and do business, for all intents and purposes, illegally.
Take Adobo Hobo, for example.
“We still aren’t fully permitted for San Francisco,” said Ed Chui. That hasn’t stopped him and his business partner, fellow San Lorenzo resident Jason Rotario, from operating their cart in the city, however.
The guys began working a little over a year ago, hauling their renegade cart to parks and street parties around town. Serving Filipino staples, like chicken adobo over rice, and Filipino-Mexican fusion in a city with few Filipino restaurants, they struck a chord with foodies ever on the lookout for a new food experience.
Of course, there was another advantage, said Chui, 30. In a tanking economy, they were offering good food at affordable prices. Much of that is possible because of the food cart’s low overhead. With not having to worry about maintaining a brick-and-mortar presence, their costs are substantially lower. That’s also why mobile food carts – and trucks – are so appealing to would-be culinary entrepreneurs. In a city where real estate values are through the roof, it can be nearly impossible for anyone without substantial financial backing to get their foot in the door.
That’s where Matt Cohen comes in.
“You gotta begin with the observation that this type of street food vending has been going on for a very long time,” said Cohen, 31.
In the past, food carts were an attractive option for immigrants, he said. They could do the cooking in their homes, the carts were cheap, and they could take them to where ever there might be a hungry crowd, such as street fairs, parks, and bars.
There are even long-term survivors such as Mexican-born Virginia Ramos – better known as “the tamale lady” – who’s been making and selling tamales in bars around the city since Cohen was 14 years old. But as carts have taken off in popularity, so has the number of vendors operating without permits or health inspections.
Cohen, who runs Tabe Services, a sort of one-stop planning, branding, management, and marketing agency for food cart vendors, estimates the number of food carts now operating with at least some frequency in San Francisco at “100 and change.”
Food carts bring jobs and innovation into San Francisco, Cohen said, but it’s extremely difficult for would-be food cart vendors to get the permits they need. “It’s a multifaceted issue,” he said.
Multifaceted only begins to describe it. The logistics of trying to get permitted are complex enough that other organizations have jumped in to assist aspiring cart vendors as well.
Although not nearly so involved as Cohen, La Cocina, a non-profit organization based in the Mission district – ground zero for much of the alternative culinary movement – recently helped Cohen organize a conference on making street food possible in San Francisco and other communities. This was in addition to its core mission of providing kitchen space and training to women, usually immigrants, who hope to establish their own culinary businesses.
Because of efforts like that, as well as the encouragement and guidance of Cohen, businesses like Adobo Hobo actually meet the city’s health requirements, despite the fact they’re operating their cart without a permit.
The Adobo Hobo guys cook their food in a commercial kitchen that is inspected, Chui said. They’re insured, and they follow all the health regulations as well. More than anything, he said, it’s the costs entailed in jumping through the various hoops of city regulations that prevents them from actually going legit. (Actually, Chui and Rotario also cook for their own pop-up restaurant, renting an established restaurant kitchen a couple nights a week to serve their growing number of fans in a perfectly legal setting).
An unusual aspect of San Francisco’s street food cart oversight is that carts like Adobo Hobo are actually regulated by the San Francisco Police Department which, unless there’s a specific complaint, isn’t too inclined to chase after street food vendors.
For adventurous foodies, chasing after carts has become the culinary equivalent of groupies following their favorite band from concert to concert. Carts offer variety and the excitement of discovering new cooks and flavors. For many of the carts’ customers, concern about whether carts have passed health inspections is secondary to the quality of the food. That, Cohen believes, speaks to the confidence many customers have in the safety of the food offered.
“If food safety were an issue,” said Cohen, “it would threaten people’s interest in trying these things.”
The Scene on the Street
It’s a damp, gray, muggy day on San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza but that hasn’t stopped a lunchtime crowd from gathering around the five food trucks parked in front of the city’s grand, domed City Hall.
Offering everything from curry and bao – steamed Chinese pork buns – to Korean- and Filipino-Mexican fusion dishes, the trucks are doing a brisk business. Customers, clutching their midday meals in a variety of to-go boxes, either wander off to eat at their desks or take them beneath the nearby grove of trees where several dozen folding chairs have been set up so diners can listen to a jazz bassist while they enjoy their lunches. On the bare, gravel strip that runs down the center of the plaza, several people have set up a bocce ball court.
Events like this – three- or four-hour gatherings of street food vendors – are just the latest development in San Francisco’s lively food scene. Only the night before, Off the Grid, Cohen’s brainchild and the organization behind this particular event, held a similar gathering in funky Haight-Ashbury, and later in the evening would set up shop again at historic Fort Mason in the city’s affluent Marina district.
Unlike many of the carts working the streets, the trucks selling food on the plaza that day had all been inspected and passed, according to Stephanie Cushing, principle environmental health inspector for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
“That’s one of the things we required of Matt Cohen’s Off the Grid,” she said. “Every participant must be permitted.”
Very recently, an Off the Grid participant was turned away after the truck failed inspection, said Cushing. In addition to some other infractions, the truck operators weren’t thawing foods correctly.
“It’s working,” she said of the relationship between the health department and Cohen’s event. “I don’t think Matt had a problem with us.”
He certainly didn’t. In order to participate in the increasingly popular food event, participants must meet city standards, including preparing their food in a commissary, having a business license, and other city-ordained regulations. The vendors’ vehicles, Cohen pointed out, can be inspected and closed down if they’re found to be operated under unsafe conditions.
Still, for better or for worse, food safety didn’t seem to be the highest priority for many of those attending the Off the Grid event at Civic Center that day. Jeanne Beacon, standing in line for the Chairman Bao truck, didn’t know whether the trucks parked there that day were inspected or not – they were, of course – but wasn’t too worried about it.
“If it’s been legitimized at an event [like Off the Grid], then it’s sort of been vouched for,” said the unemployed office manager and roller derby skater. She likens the experience to cooking for friends; one certainly doesn’t have to be licensed to do that, she noted.
After saying she wasn’t worried about the safety of buying food from street vendors, Oakland resident Katheryn Anderson paused for a split second and added, “Maybe I should be.” That didn’t stop her from moving along in the line though. “I’ve heard only great recommendations,” she said.
Another Oakland resident, Chris Hallenbeck, said his confidence in the food’s safety comes from the fact that “some of these folks have culinary training.”
Often enough, that’s true. But many of the cooks who own and operate the trucks on the site that day didn’t start with culinary educations. Chui and Rotario, a real estate broker, began cooking after being encouraged by friends to follow in the footsteps of another notorious street food vendor, Curtis Kimball, aka “the crème brûlée guy”.
Julia Yoon, owner of Seoul on Wheels and the first in San Francisco to begin selling something other than tacos or hot dogs from a truck, started as a home cook. She offers Korean barbecue – and Korean barbecue-filled tacos – from her truck all over the Bay Area. Despite her lack of formal culinary training, however, she’s just as concerned with safety as she is quality.
“I thoroughly believe in regulation,” Yoon said. “I certainly don’t want anyone to get sick from my food or anyone else’s food.” Yoon is especially heartened by what she sees as the city’s efforts to be more accommodating to mobile food vendors like herself, but she credits Cohen with doing all the leg work.
“I don’t think it would ever have gone to this point if it were not for his efforts,” she said. “I applaud him. I certainly don’t have the time and resources to do what Matt is doing.”
While Cohen touts the growth of mobile food vending in San Francisco as an incubator for new ideas in a city that prides itself on its food culture, the health department isn’t quite as preoccupied with that ideal. Many interviewed for this story commented on San Francisco’s light-handed touch in dealing with the issue, seeing it as almost tacit encouragement for the growth of street food. For Cushing, however, it really comes down to safety.
Yes, it’s nice to be able to help people pursue their dreams, she said, “but we really have no feeling one way or the other.”
The Challenge of Mobile Oversight
From the city’s perspective, the rise in popularity of food trucks – and the resulting regulatory headaches – has been a challenge. Technology has added another dimension to the issue, as well. Nearly all the city’s food vendors use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to let customers know their whereabouts as they move from one location to another. Curtis Kimball, alone, has nearly 14,000 people following the movements of his crème brulee cart on Twitter.
Unlike in other cities, however, the day-to-day oversight of mobile food carts and trucks in San Francisco falls to the police department, although health inspections fall under the purview of the health department.
That’s been problematic. As far as the health department is concerned, it’s also meant that fees that should be going into their coffers – including fees that are already earmarked for public health – are collected by the police department, instead, said Cushing.
Those fees are then supposed to go to the health department, but that hasn’t been happening, she said. Without the money to cover the costs, inspectors are able to perform only the minimum number of inspections unless a complaint has been specifically filed about a particular vendor.
Under new proposals by Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is also a candidate for mayor in the upcoming November election, regulatory oversight would shift from the city’s police department to the department of public works. That’s a detail that’s left many street food observers scratching their heads but, as a source close to Dufty observed, it makes sense.
Streets and public lots, the very spaces where cart and truck owners ply their trade, fall under the oversight of the Department of Public Works. The Department of Public Health would have the initial sign off, the source said, but continued oversight would fall under public works. The legislation, which was submitted by Dufty last spring, is expected to come to a vote before the end of the year after consultations with a variety of city agencies, including police, fire, small business, and planning. The new legislation would also ensure that more of the fees paid by vendors actually go to the health department.
In fact, the overhaul of San Francisco’s street food vendor regulations could mean the entire process of obtaining permits and dealing with inspections, regulations, and fees should result in a more streamlined process altogether. The idea is to present vendors with a cohesive, sensible plan that won’t leave the people most affected by it trying to cobble together the permits and information they need despite the changes in the laws.
At least, that’s the hope.