Among the things the street food craze has given San Francisco: Brian Boitano

Julia Pon and Brian Soland, co-founders of Indilicious, and purveyors of Indian tacos and flatbreads, make little air quote gestures when they describe their food cart. It’s actually a folding table.
“Our start-up costs were pretty much nothing,” says Julia. “We bought two chafing dishes, some sterno….”
“The table we already had,” Brian interjects.
Their debut was as simple as checking a food cart Twitter feed. The Lab, an art space in the Mission, put out an invitation for food carts to come to an an art opening. They made some chutney in their kitchen and off they went. “We didn’t know anyone before we got there,” says Julia. “When we left, we were members of the Google Group.”

On 10:30 this morning, in city hall room 250, the city of San Francisco officially begins its debate on how best to harness the city’s widely-publicized street food movement and make the permitting process sane. In its favor: It has given talented, spirited, but underfunded cooks the chance to investigate the demand for their wares. It has makes San Francisco seem exciting and hip. It has prompted visits from Brian Boitano. It has given drunk people easily accessible food at times and locations where a licensed seller would fear to tread. In its disfavor, there is this: It’s totally in violation of California health code.

In the community of street cart owners, rumors abound that this hearing is a move by the local restaurant community to bar the gate against interlopers. This is not true, according to Kevin Westlye, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “I did not specifically approach Bevan Dufty to hold a hearing,” says Westlye. “As far as I know, he put this on the table all on his own.”

“We are monitoring the situation. Our members are not opposed to the concept. I’ve had as many members tell me that they’re planning their own food carts as I’ve had phoning in complaints.”

Meanwhile, Bevan Dufty reports that he is just trying to stop that thing that happened with the popsicle vendors from happening again. “Fifteen years ago the city was picking on the palateros,” says Dufty. “Suddenly we had popsicle salesmen protesting on the steps of city hall. I do not want another wagon train like that to happen again.” Dufty says that he called for the hearing not because there is a problem with the city’s burgeoning street food entrepreneurs, but because he finds that the current laws regulating street food to be outdated. “How do we decide the balance between what is in the public interest and what is in the merchants’ interest?” Dufty says, expansively. ” We need to find a balance.”

Unfortunately, isn’t much that Dufty, or anyone else in the city, can do about the laws that are currently on the books. The State of California passed a set of street food regulations in 2007 that make it extremely difficult for food carts not already grandfathered in to the system to operate on public land – which is a lot of land in San Francisco. Among the rules: each push cart must have a three-basin sink with running water and a foot of drain board on either side. Push carts with grills must also have an air filtration system. “They are state regulations – not local ones,” says Rajiv Bhatia, the director of Occupational and Environmental Health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “We just implement them.”

“The regulations were clearly written with the strong influence of the National Restaurant Association and the California Restaurant Association,” says Larry Bain, of Let’s Be Frank hotdogs. “They essentially make selling food out of anything smaller than a truck illegal. And a truck is going to cost around $50,000. Used. I’m the luckiest man in the world because I operate my hot dog cart on federal park land. Which is not to say that I still have to deal with these incredibly stringent, insane laws – I can’t purchase any supplies at a farmer’s market, for example.” As a city, San Francisco can only alter California’s street food laws in one way: by making them stricter.

But San Francisco has a history of being selective about what laws it feels like following. Marijuana is more or less legal here for those who have prescriptions, simply because the city has decided to be selective in its enforcement of state and federal laws.

The hope – quiet, but fervent, is that now that the city looks to be switching the permit process for food carts on public land from the department of public works to the department of public health, getting a permit will be a simpler matter than it once was, because actual health officials will be in charge of the process, and will perhaps not care so much about sink dimensions if they feel that the spirit of the law is being adhered to.

“In my opinion,” says Bain, “the Department of Public Health has a great perspective on how access to local, fresh food ties in the local economy, and to health of the city. They understand that the most dangerous part of the food chain is not what happens in the kitchen – it’s what happens on the farm, or in the slaughterhouse. Behaving as though it is otherwise is like putting perfume instead of taking a shower.”

And there is, says Bain, such a thing as too little enforcement. “In Los Angeles, they had a history of cracking down on Latino-run street food, but once white people started selling it, there was almost no enforcement. Now you have these traffic jams caused by 17 food trucks descending on Wilshire Boulevard at once, undercutting each other and, ultimately, their own business. And you have egregious exploitation of undocumented workers by owners who rent the trucks to them by the day, for extortionate rates.”

This could be prevented in San Francisco, Bain says, by including a commissary in the redevelopment plan for the city’s wholesale produce market. Since every mobile food vendor with a permit needs to store their supplies in a refrigerated space and clean their vehicle every evening, a city-run commissary would provide a centralized location to keep an eye on unethical practices – labor-related, food-related or otherwise.

Still, with the way things currently stand. It’s hard to beat the financial incentives to stay illegal. Space in commercial kitchens rents out at around $150 an hour in San Francisco, and spots at more affordable spots like La Cocina are highly competitive. Start-up costs for illegal food cart run at a few hundred dollars, including ingredients. Bain estimates that going through the permit process for his first hot dog cart (which was relatively simple, since it was located on private property) cost him about $5,000. The permits for the second one, in Crissey Field, cost him around $10,000. “If I get in trouble,” he says,”I have more to lose. I’ve been in the food business for years. My livelihood is at stake.”

The future, says Bhatia, may involve city support for helping people through the permit process, as well as subsidized commercial kitchens and more business incubators like la Cocina, as a way of providing an alternative to illegality.”We do want to facilitate the growth of local, independent street food,”Bhatia says.” But we also want people to understand the value of regulation. We don’t know if more street food is going to pose a greater health risk. What we do know is that if someone gets sick from street food, it will kill the industry.”

“If there’s a crackdown,” says Ben, of the Gumbo Cart. “I’ll just go back to graphic design full-time.” It’s a cold night, and Ben is ladling out paper bowls of gumbo to passersby. He attributes the boom in street food to one thing: The recession – the force that originally drove him and his grandfather’s gumbo recipe out onto the city’s streets. “People are looking for extra money,” he says. And they have a lot of time on their hands.”

Ben has yet to meet any health officials during his months of gumbo ladling. Or cops, for that matter. “The police have more important things to think about. Like crime. It’s like if a person jaywalks,” says Ben, warming up to the issue. “The car driver may get mad and say, “Hey, you aren’t following the rules.” But it’s like ‘Hey man, you’ve got a car.”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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