Saturday, September 8, 2012


By Luke Tsai
Sat, Sep 8, 2012 at 9:07 AM

The conventional wisdom is that starting a food truck or food cart business is far less expensive than opening a restaurant, and that’s true. But the fact is, it’s expensive to start any food business from the ground up. For many first-time mobile food entrepreneurs, the thousands (often tens of thousands) of dollars in overhead and permitting fees that you need to pay up front make it a cost-prohibitive proposition.

Here’s a novel idea: What if instead of having to buy their own cart, aspiring food vendors could just rent a cart — one that’s fully equipped and permitted? The 25th Street Collective, a sustainable business incubator and artisans’ collective based in Uptown Oakland, is hoping they’ll be able to make such a rent-a-cart program a reality.

First Friday at the 25th Street Collective
  • First Friday at the 25th Street Collective
Hiroko Kurihara, the organization’s founder, explained that the collective was created for the express purpose of helping small, fledgling businesses — what she calls “nano-enterprises” — share their resources. Members include a winemaker, a shoemaker, and various practitioners of the sewn arts. They share a space (a former auto-glass warehouse); they use the same printer; they collaborate to host workshops and other events.

So when two Collective members, the proprietors of a mobile coffee cart called Art Is In Coffee, went through the mobile food vendor permitting process with the City of Oakland recently, Kurihara saw up close how challenging and costly that process can be — this despite Oakland having implemented an interim mobile food policy designed to be more permissive, at least to vendors willing to work within the so-called “food pod” framework. The various permits alone can cost around $1,000 a year — and that’s on top of the cost of buying the cart/truck, outfitting it, and purchasing ingredients. For first-time entrepreneurs, who have no established following and little hope of obtaining conventional bank loans, it means the dream might be dashed before it ever gets off the ground.

So Kurihara came up with her rental program idea — which, to be clear, is still in its early planning phase. But the upshot is that the 25th Street Collective would purchase a cart, equip it, insure it, and obtain all the necessary permits. Vendors would pay the Collective to use the cart — for a couple of days a week, or maybe just for a few hours once a month.

“Some people don’t want to own their own cart,” Kurihara said. “Maybe they only want to sell once a month at a farmers’ market.”

Kurihara explained that the Collective in the process of exploring different options for funding the initial purchase of the cart, but that she hopes it can be up and running within the next six months. What also still needs to be hashed out: when, where, and the exact terms under which a rented cart would be able to operate legally, in compliance with Oakland’s current mobile food regulations.

To start out, Kurihara said, the cart would be housed at the 25th Street Collective itself and could be used during First Fridays and other special events.

The main thing is that this cart rental program would provide a way for the financial burden of launching a new food business to be shared, rather than shouldered by one individual.

Esperanza Pallana, coordinator of the Oakland Food Policy Council, said the goal of the proposed program would be to “help new entrepreneurs pilot their business without going all in and going for broke.” She likened it to Rockridge’s Guest Chef (a restaurant where any aspiring chef can sign up for two-week stint in charge of the kitchen) — but for mobile food.

Pallana explained that the Council, which makes recommendations to the city on ways to make Oakland’s food system more equitable and sustainable, has taken an interest in mobile food vending because of its potential to shift the food economy to local owners (as opposed to big corporate entities) — and to open up “mechanisms by which people can get healthy food.”

For those reasons, the Council has advocated expanding the opportunities available to food trucks and food carts in Oakland. It has also encouraged the City of Oakland to consider more economically feasible approaches to permitting — allowing multiple vendors to operate under a single permit, for example.

Pallana has been collaborating with the 25th Street Collective on their mobile food initiatives — and not just on their plans for the hoped-for cart. Pallana and the Collective have also organized a series of workshops designed to educate prospective mobile food vendors. About forty people attended a recent session, headed by Sherry Garza of the La Placita commercial kitchen and micro-business support center, covering the basic ins and outs of Oakland’s permitting process.

And on Saturday, September 15, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Garza will lead a food safety certification class held at the Collective (477 25th St.). The cost for the class (and the certificate) is $150 — Pallana stressed that the food handler’s certification lasts for five years, so it averages out to $2.50 a month.

Ultimately, Kurihara and Pallana hope their efforts will be more than just a rent-a-cart program and a few isolated workshops. Their long-term goal is to create an entire pilot program for new mobile food entrepreneurs — one in which the city or county could potentially make additional accommodations to ease the burden of up-front permitting fees.

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