Food Trucks Prohibited 

While cities around the country are embracing mobile food vendors, Oakland still treats most of them as scofflaws.

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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.

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