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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The new guidelines allow mobile vending from the Jack London area up north through Temescal as well as all around Lake Merritt and in parts of West Oakland. For the first time, food trucks can occupy a public parking space instead of needing to pay rent on a private lot.

To appease restaurant owners, no mobile vendor can set up within 300 feet of a restaurant unless they first receive signatures of approval. Some streets have exceptions to this buffer distance, most notably stretches of Telegraph Avenue.

There are also new limits. The city will only permit 75 pushcarts and 75 food trucks on private property, while the 2001 ordinance set no such restrictions. It will also designate just 25 public parking spaces for food trucks, although multiple trucks could share one spot by alternating days. According to project manager Reiff, it's possible more permits could be added in the future.

"From the city council's view, this is a trial period to see if you can manage 150 permits and do it well," he said.

Some vendors, such as Enrique Soriano, who owns Tacos Los Michoacanos, think these numbers are too restrictive.

"[The city] isn't allowing enough trucks to operate," he said, adding that he wishes the city would legalize more locations. "It's not allowing enough of the map to become available."

Soriano said he didn't apply for a city permit, although he plans to when the application period opens up again in January. Tacos Los Michoacanos is one of the oldest-operating trucks in town, started by his parents in the 1990s. These days, it parks in a lot on International Boulevard, serving piping-hot bowls of menudo and birria on the weekends. But according to city records, Tacos Los Michoacanos only applied for permits under the old program seven times. Soriano said the first ordinance didn't suit his parents' desires to expand beyond Fruitvale, so they stopped bothering.

Getting vendors to apply for permits has been an ongoing challenge for the city. According to city records, more than 140 food trucks and 160 pushcarts applied for permits between 2001 and 2017. Among those, fewer than half applied more than once, even though the permits expire on an annual basis.

Otero blamed staffing issues at the city. She said every time there was a new mayor, there was a new person who had to figure out the program. She'd bring a bundle of applications and checks to City Hall but couldn't get anyone to take them.

"They didn't even know how to issue permits," she said. "Then nobody wanted to pay."

She also said vendors typically don't want to close up for a day — and lose that income — in order to trek to City Hall.

With the new program, the city received 131 applications. Only 26 came from vendors with a currently valid permit and just 16 came from vendors who received at least one permit in the past. "We visited many trucks directly," Reiff said. "For whatever reason, some owners just didn't apply." Cost shouldn't be a major issue for vendors accustomed to the old program. Annual application fees were approximately $1,800 for a truck and $850 for a pushcart. Now they cost $1,589 and $1,000, respectively.

Soriano said the new rules are a step in the right direction, but they don't go far enough. He thinks trucks shouldn't be confined to just one location.

"You should be able to move from one spot to another," he said. "The point of a food truck is to be able to pop up."

In 2015, Tacos Los Michoacanos drove from its usual Fruitvale spot to Temescal and downtown. It attracted quite the following until the city put it to a stop. "We were kind of protesting, showing we wanted to sell and the community wanted us there," he said.

Because Tacos Los Michoacanos has held a permit before, it will receive some priority during the next application period. This "grandfather clause" of the ordinance gives the highest priority to vendors who currently have valid permits, followed by those who have ever received a permit. New vendors who apply for parking spots in the public right of way will be prioritized next, followed by those who apply for private spaces.

There is a big demand for the 25 public parking space permits. The city has already received 44 applications for them. If there aren't enough permits to hand out to everyone who applies, the permitting will be determined by a lottery.

The grandfather clause is a relief for many longtime vendors who followed the rules in the past. "As first, we felt like we were being pushed aside," Soriano said. "New players showed up, and that's when the City of Oakland started to show interest."

But at a city council meeting earlier this year, Harold Stevens, owner of Hal's Original NY Hot Dog Cart, said Oakland's many hot dog vendors who operate without a city permit have cultivated followings in specific locations and deserve some priority.

"It's not fair for the new vendors to come around and take the place of some of us vendors that have been around for several years," he said.

On the flip side, the Lumpia Lady said longtime vendors have been doing just fine without these regulations, and that only 75 carts for the entire city isn't enough to include everyone anyway. That means the vendors who continue to operate will get fined by the city.

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