Friday, December 21, 2012

For Oakland’s Food Truck Movement, Only Small Successes in 2012

By Luke Tsai
Fri, Dec 21, 2012 at 9:34 AM

The year got off to such a promising start for Oakland’s seemingly limitless population of street-food enthusiasts — and for the mobile food vendors who want to feed them. A newly passed interim policy allowed food trucks, for the first time, to operate weekly at approved locations outside of the Fruitvale, as long as they were clustered into permit-carrying “pods” of three or more trucks.

It was easy to imagine that dozens of these so-called “food pods” would spring up all over Oakland — the first shots fired in a bloodless revolution of gourmet cupcakes and Asian-fusion tacos. People would come out in droves, and, buoyed by that success, city officials would quickly move to make mobile food — beyond taco trucks in Fruitvale — a permanent fixture in Oakland’s culinary landscape.

But the fact of the matter is that Oakland’s food pod experiment saw only small successes in 2012. Citywide, only seven different group-vending locations were ever established, mostly in and around Downtown. And two of the pods (the Thursday night pod in front of Splash Pad Park and the Tuesday Clay Pod, at the intersection of Clay and 14th Streets) already closed down for good earlier than planned — this despite the fact that the City of Oakland recently extended the one-year pilot program, allowing existing food pods to continue running at least through July 1, 2013. According to the organizers of those two pods, there was never enough business to justify the ongoing expense of weekly permitting fees.

Meanwhile, city officials don’t appear to be much closer to reaching an agreement on a permanent mobile food policy that would ensure that food trucks would be able to operate in Oakland beyond this upcoming July.

Bites Off Broadway, before it closed for the winter.
  • Bites Off Broadway, before it closed for the winter.
“Here it is a year later, and we don’t even have anything to present to [City] Council for a permanent policy,” said Karen Hester, the organizer of the Bites Off Broadway food pod, which is closed for the winter months. “It just seems like foot dragging, in my opinion.”

According to Hester, one of the biggest reasons the food pod program hasn’t taken off is that the barriers to entry are too high — more than $600 up front to apply, plus a couple hundred dollars on top of that each week to cover permits, parking meters, and so forth. (When the city extended the interim program, it did reduce the basic weekly permit fee from $100 to $50 — a nice gesture, Hester said, though of course she wishes they’d slash it even further.)

Gail Lillian, owner of the LIBA Falafel food truck and organizer of the now-defunct Clay Pod, stressed that the city administrators that she came in contact with have been nothing if not supportive. That said, she too has been frustrated that Oakland hasn’t moved more quickly on the legislation front.

“It was hard to run a pod this year thinking it was just going to end in January,” Lillian said. “[The city] set up parameters that made it hard to invest into these pods moving forward.”

Lillian's three-truck Clay Pod had its last day of service earlier this week, on December 18.

For their part, city officials note that Oakland simply doesn’t have the resources, or sufficient staffing, to make mobile food vending one of its highest priorities. Alisa Shen, the city planner who has taken the lead role, has a host of other major projects she’s coordinating — mobile food appears to be the thing she works on when she’s able to cobble together some free time.

And as Arturo Sanchez, the deputy city administrator, put it, “The difficulty here is that as a city we have to deal with multiple constituencies” — in other words, not just the food-truck and pushcart operators, but also the owners of brick-and-mortar businesses (who may not appreciate what they perceive to be unfair competition), local residents, and the police department.

Sanchez’s reference to the police points to what may be the biggest holdup: the issue of enforcement. If the interim mobile food policy has failed, it’s in large part because the city has lacked the wherewithal, or the political willpower, to actively enforce that policy — that is, to discourage renegade trucks who flout the law and hawk their wares, guerilla-style, part of no pod and having pulled no permit.

And why should those vendors saddle themselves with the expense, and the restricted parameters, of joining a food pod when there’s no real consequence for breaking the law? Sanchez said that, in theory, violators should be charged with a misdemeanor every time they sell without a permit. But the reality is that in a city with as much crime as Oakland, the police just aren’t going to respond to those kinds of complaints — and the complaints are infrequent anyway.

It’s no surprise, then, that Edward Manasse, Oakland’s strategic planning manager, concedes that at present there are almost certainly more trucks operating in the city illegally than legally. He and Sanchez both believe the new mobile food policy needs to include some mechanism that won’t put the burden of enforcement on the police — perhaps a person or group of people who would, as a portion of their job, make sure that food trucks and pushcarts abide by the law.

Whatever form that new enforcement mechanism takes, it likely won't be inexpensive. As Manasse pointed out, "We don't have anybody right now, except the police, who works nights and weekends."

But, despite the skepticism from some of the pod organizers, Manasse said the city is committed to getting a permanent mobile food policy drawn up well before the pilot program expires — ideally by April or May, he said.

That new policy would likely include some way for individual food trucks to operate legally. Also on the table: the reduction in fees that Hester and others would love to see, perhaps by means of changing the framework so that pod organizers or individual food trucks would pay an annual, rather than per-event, fee.

According to Shen, the next steps include data collection through a brief online survey (asking, among other things, where in the city people would like to see more food trucks) and a meeting with a group of stakeholders (food truck owners, the restaurant association, etc.) that will probably take place early in 2013.

“I think that we’re making baby steps,” Shen concluded, adding that, in spite of how it may appear on the outside, “We are really excited and committed to having a program in place.”

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