For being the culinary mecca of San Francisco, the Mission’s food truck options are currently limited to El Tonayense and Buen Sabor taco trucks.
That may soon change, as Supervisor Scott Wiener is looking to amend a law that prohibits new food trucks from neighborhood streets.
Food trucks are now banned from parking within 1,500 feet — the equivalent of three to four blocks — of public middle schools or high schools from Monday through Friday between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Wiener wants to reduce that to 500 feet, or about a block.
In the Mission, a large section of the neighborhood is off-limits for food trucks because of three schools (see map). The industrial area north of 17th Street and a section of the lower 24th Street corridor remain open.
Wiener is working with restaurants and food truck operators to revise the process adopted by the city in 2010, which would include revising the school zone prohibition. That is likely to take several months.
The school prohibition section of the code is based on a 2007 ordinance aimed at improving students’ health. The Unified School District’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee argued that food trucks operating right outside schools were competing with the schools’ sales of healthy lunches. The idea, the committee argued, was to keep the trucks “out of sight, out of mind.”
“Now that the schools have stopped selling junk food, the catering trucks do it instead,” committee member Dana Woldow argued back in 2007. “When they sell at the front door, the competition drains money from the school lunch program that harms the quality of the lunch line meal.”
In the spring of 2009, the school district fought the presence of El Tonayense’s taco truck outside John O’Connell High School at 20th and Harrison streets, claiming that it was undermining the policy.
Eventually a deal was brokered that allowed the truck to park after 4 p.m. and also on 17th and Shotwell streets.
According to Rob Black, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a trade group that represents the restaurant industry, the law is funneling trucks to the downtown area.
“The way the law is constructed, there is an emphasis on applying to downtown because there is so much territory that is closed,” he said.
While that wasn’t the school district’s intention, they were aware it was a likely side effect.
“Virtually the entire downtown area, including the Financial District, Union Square … all the busiest parts of downtown wouldn’t be affected by this ordinance,” a schools official told a Board of Supervisors committee back in 2007. “Catering trucks could continue to sell meals and snacks to adults who enjoy their convenience in nearly every part of town.”
Since then, the school district has softened its stance.
Nancy Waymack, executive director of policy and operations for the Unified School District, said the district wants to find a solution that “works for everyone.”
According to Matt Cohen, the organizer of the popular Off the Grid food truck gatherings, the restrictions are the main reason why there are few trucks on Mission streets — though it is also due to the many restaurant options in the district, he said. Some residential neighborhoods in the Mission are also off-limits to food trucks.
Some food truck operators have already applied for Mission permits, including Doc’s of the Bay and additional bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors.
Cohen said he would mobilize Off the Grid events in Mission if the community supported it.
“The short answer is, we are looking for a location and we definitely would like to do something,” he said.
Currently there is one Mission Off the Grid event, on McCoppin and Valencia streets, one Saturday a month. It is part of a farmers market in the area.
Opponents of the 2007 law say it is outdated.
“In terms of wanting to have better food, wanting to have social equity, I think it went too far,” Wiener said of the law. “Food trucks have come a long way. To assume that all food trucks are junk food is inaccurate.”
A quick survey of workers on their lunch break waiting in line to buy tacos and burritos from El Tonayense at 17th and Harrison streets shows they would welcome more options. The northeast Mission is mostly industrial and has recently become a hotbed for startups.
Tito Pretel said he gets tired of constantly eating the same food. “I wish the whole street covered in food trucks,” he said.
Mike Lee, who works nearby at UCSF, said he is fond of Korean food, which is popular cuisine among food truck operators.
For some it’s about the convenience. Ken Torres, a contractor, said he likes the services a restaurant provides and eats at taco trucks when he is on the run.
“I am a restaurant guy,” he said. “This is just for a quick bite. It’s fast and affordable.”
El Tonayense’s owner, Benjamin Santana, said he would welcome a change in the law because he could apply for other locations throughout the Mission.
“I think it will be good for me,” he said. “Competition makes you better.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that El Tonayense was allowed to park near schools because its permits were grandfathered in. That is not the case. We regret the error.