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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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 initialism 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.

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