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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Even though Oakland was the first city in the country to legalize the mobile food industry, the regulations have largely stayed the same since 2001. One change came in 2011, when the city allowed food trucks to sell in groups for special events like Off the Grid or Bites Off Broadway, but that, too, was a case of the city responding to something already happening. Karen Hester, who founded Bites Off Broadway, said she started the illegal event knowingly, and then it became instantly popular.

Vendors who ignored the city's rules — and there were many — operated in what they saw as a lawless free-for-all because the rules were rarely enforced.

"It seemed too good to be true," said Loris Mattox-Matterson, who co-owns Scotch Bonnet Jamaican Food Truck. "You could just go up to the lake on a Sunday and be fine."

The majority of the mobile food operators the Express interviewed who operated illegally for years said they were rarely, if ever, approached by police or city staff. If they were, it was always the result of a complaint from a restaurant.

Back in 2011, when the city first allowed food truck events to be held in Oakland, councilmembers didn't want to fully open up the city to mobile food because they hadn't figured out a way to enforce the law, according to Devan Reiff, the city's project manager for the new mobile food program. "We know a lot of unpermitted vending happens in Oakland," Reiff said. It mostly goes down at night and on weekends, when city staffers have clocked out.

Along with the new regulations come two full-time, bilingual staff members whose sole task will be to monitor vendors. They are expected to start within the next few months, working nights and weekends. Reiff said the plan is to educate folks first about the regulations before handing out citations, although that could escalate to penalties and even the seizure of a vendor's equipment.

Some vendors who've been operating illegally for years don't believe the new rules will significantly impact them. The Lumpia Lady has been popping up around Oakland since the '90s but has never applied for a permit — mostly because it used to be restricted to Fruitvale and East Oakland. She said she's not personally concerned about the new enforcement staff. "First, they gotta catch me," she said.

Other vendors see themselves as legit because they are permitted by the county health department and have business tax certificates — even though they never received mobile food permits from the city. For 2017, Oakland issued just 11 permits to food trucks and 17 to carts under the old program, while the health department gave permits to 75 food trucks and 43 pushcarts in Oakland, according to a February city report. There is an unknown number of vendors operating in Oakland without permits; Otero estimates at least 100 in Fruitvale alone.

For Scotch Bonnet Jamaican Food Truck, the added enforcement is welcome news. Owners Mattox-Matterson and Abraham O'Brian Matterson park twice a month outside the New Parish nightclub in Uptown, and they're tired of the competition from trucks that don't even have Alameda County health permits — some that come from San Francisco. When that happens, Mattox-Matterson said, she can't call the cops because Scotch Bonnet, too, isn't there legally. They applied to make the New Parish their truck's home under the new program. (For the duration of their permit, vendors have to commit to the specific locations they apply for.)

"If we get it, we'll be there as often as we can because it's our spot," Mattox-Matterson said. "Rogue mobile food will be there, too. That's just how it is. I just hope it drops off."

Otero calls unpermitted folks "pirates," but she's actually less hard on them than many vendors. She recognizes that most people in mobile food started out that way.

"We opened a big door, and we have to take the consequences," she said. "My heart is weak in that part because I know [unpermitted vendors] are going to do things right."

Lidia Morales, for example, has parked her La Catrina Taqueria truck outside Grocery Outlet on Broadway for 16 years. About four years ago, she received a cease-and-desist letter from the city and went straight to Otero for the first time. She had no idea that there was any kind of permit program, nor that she wasn't allowed to park on Broadway. "I thought I was lucky that I was the only one who found this place," she said.

Otero talked to city officials and got them to leave Morales alone until the new regulations kicked in. Meanwhile, Morales applied for and is awaiting her first permit.

"I wouldn't know what to do without her," she said.

Back in 2001, when Otero was pushing to legalize street food, the vendors were all Latinx. "Now we have Asians, African-Americans, Europeans — you name it — doing this business. Now they see that this is a new food industry," Otero said. "We changed the perception of business and food."

But there are qualms with the city's new program. Some longtime unpermitted vendors say it primarily benefits newcomers who have funds to start their businesses, while others think it gives an unfair advantage to the Latinx community. On top of that, many vendors haven't applied for the new permits. Those who did are frustrated the process is taking so long.


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