The Woman Behind Oakland's Mobile Food Scene 

Emilia Otero fought to legalize the mobile food industry for immigrants in Fruitvale, but as Oakland expands its permits across the city, some fear the new regulations may put many out of business.

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"They would say, 'Why are you helping those dirty Mexicans?' They used to hurt my feelings because I was Mexican, too," she said.

Some of the pushback came from the vendors themselves, who didn't want to be organized or have to pay application fees and city taxes.

Otero said one time three men showed up to her front door with a knife — a tense encounter that ended with Garza punching one of them in the eye.

"I've always been very protective of my mom," Garza said. "He got way too close to my mom's face."

"They used to break my windshield, they used to pinch my tires — so many things like that," Otero said. "But I never gave up. I was just stronger."

Looking back, Garza suspects that some Fruitvale vendors viewed her and her mom as outsiders trying to ruin their lucrative street-food businesses. She thinks it was due to the fact that her family is not originally from Oakland — and sexism.

"It was never the women [vendors]. They were men who didn't want us to tell them what to do," Garza said.

Looking back, Otero doubts the first ordinance would have passed had De La Fuente not been council president at the time. "I knew why [councilmembers] were not supporting my vendors. Because they were a bunch of Mexicans," she said. "It was only Ignacio, because he was Mexican. He was powerful, so they had to support him."

But De La Fuente credits Otero and Garza, who eventually became Otero's business partner.

"Emilia and her daughter are very hardworking, aggressive people," De La Fuente said. "They were very instrumental."

In 2008, Otero began working on another one of her promises: a commissary kitchen for the vendors. She opened La Placita on Fruitvale Avenue, giving the longtime vendors she worked with, as well as newer folks, a place to prep and learn about the industry.

James Whitehead of Fist of Flour Pizza Company joined La Placita in 2011, shortly after building a mobile pizza oven. "There's no handbook on how to start a mobile food business," he said. "There were a lot of us in those early days who found a lot of help there."

But that first iteration of La Placita didn't last long.

As a lifelong volunteer, Otero found it difficult pivoting into the role of a business owner. One time when she didn't have enough money to cover a check to keep the lights on, strangers came forward to give her the necessary funds.

"That's the true love people really have for my mom and what La Placita was doing for people," Garza said. "They all came to the rescue."

Otero wasn't always so fortunate, though. In 2012, La Placita's building went into foreclosure, and the new owner gave Otero three months to pack up and leave. They didn't have enough money to start all over again. "I didn't have $20 in my purse," Otero said.

A timely grant from the Opportunity Fund, a microfinance nonprofit based in San Francisco, allowed Otero to refurbish an old, windowless building caked in spider webs on International Boulevard. Friends and volunteers helped with the painting, cleaning, and plumbing. La Placita found its second life, and that's when Otero remembered she still owed her vendors one more thing. She told them she'd open up the rest of Oakland to mobile food — and she worried the city would never get around to it without her pushing.

"When I sit down and relax, no one does anything," she said. "When I moved into this La Placita, I said, 'We need to bring this back. I want to retire and I want to die and I want to accomplish my last promise.'"

click to enlarge Otero and her daughter-in-law Pamela Smith in their commercial kitchen La Placita. - PHOTO BY KALA MINKO
  • Photo by Kala Minko
  • Otero and her daughter-in-law Pamela Smith in their commercial kitchen La Placita.

On a recent Wednesday night, the Cool!naria food truck sat closed outside of Room 389 on Grand Avenue.

Inside the bar, though, Alberto Avramow Pitman and Elizabeth Rueda were serving their contemporary Mexican cuisine: shrimp tacos topped with a carrot slaw and pesto; tostadas loaded with portabellas, pumpkin purée, cherry tomatoes, and queso fresco; and hanger steak costras — street tacos layered with crispy cheese. Rueda took orders while Pitman warmed tortillas on a small griddle behind the espresso bar. They prefer to operate out of their more spacious and properly equipped truck, but for now, they can't.

Pitman and Rueda are Mexico City natives who were hired for so many private chef gigs in the Bay Area that they decided to make it their permanent home about four years ago. With Oakland as their base, they launched Cool!naria in January and soon accepted an invitation from Room 389 to park in front of the bar.

And then a neighboring restaurant started complaining. The police came — twice. Fines were threatened but ultimately disregarded as a result of faulty paperwork, according to Pitman. So Cool!naria moved indoors. Pitman applied for a permit from the city this summer and doesn't want to risk opening up his food truck until he gets it.

"[City officials] are not clear about what they're gonna do. We've been waiting," Pitman said. "We hope to open soon because we need to open."

Pitman said he operated his food truck in San Francisco with no issues, but as an Oakland resident, the cost of gas added up fast. Other food truck operators echoed Pitman's dilemma: They lived in Oakland and wanted to park their trucks here, but there were more friendly rules elsewhere.


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