In 2010, Brian Boitano sold delcious dairy good including mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches at his food cart in Precita Park. Photo by Heather Smith.

There were no easy answers at the hearing on San Francisco’s food carts this morning. Room 205 of City Hall was packed with earnest, mostly unlicensed food cart vendors, who came to complain of a bureaucratic, unpredictable, and expensive permitting process that makes going legit extremely difficult.

“We have 12 percent unemployment in the state of California,” said vendor Shakirah Simley, after asking every other food vendor in the room to stand up. “What are we doing to encourage small entrepreneurs like these?”

The consensus at the meeting seemed to be: not much, except from not arresting them. But there was a certain giddiness and sense of utopian purpose not often on view at city meetings. “This is activating streets, parks, and nightlife,” said Larry Badner, zoning administrator for the city. “I’ve eaten street food. I love Fabric 8.”

“I would like to add that San Francisco is seen as America’s food capital,” said Dufty.

The vendors came across as slightly more dour, and anxious, than their proposed regulators. Among the suggestions posed by the vendors: allow smaller vendors to pool together and apply for a single permit for street festivals, take into account event duration when handing out permits (“We don’t need on-site heating, refrigeration, or bathrooms for a two-hour event,” one vendor said. “Trust me. We use the bathroom before the event starts”) to relax the regulation forbidding a food cart from being located within 1500 feet of a school for carts that sell healthy food, and to build a centralized commissary that would provide the cleaning and refrigerated storage facilities required for licensed food carts.

More than any other issue, vendors were focused on the desire that one city department, preferably the Department of Public Health, be put in charge of all food cart permits. Currently, the department handing out the permit varies based on whether the cart will be located on private, public, port, or park land.

One thing was certain. No one wanted the police handing out food permits any longer (they currently handle requests for carts located on public land.) “You just don’t want a homicide detective telling you where you can put your business at,” said one vendor.

“It’s inconsistent,” said Matt Cohen, who runs the San Francisco cart project. “You can got at different times of the day, talk to different people, and have a completely different permitting experience.” Liba, Cohen said, called off their search for a permit to locate on public land in San Francisco after they were told that not only couldn’t they sell food within 100 feet of a bricks and morter business that sold a similar product, but that their falafal sandwiches would be considered “similar product” to, and thereby competitive with, a business nearby selling coffee, or soda. Other vendors complained about the network of hot dog carts throughout the city that are grandfathered in to less stringent regulations, “They don’t have the same positive spirit that the new carts do.”

Larry Bain, of Let’s Be Frank hotdogs was one of the few people at the hearing with an actual cart permit. He described being turned down for a permit to locate a cart at the San Francisco Mint. “I had been assured that I would get this permit,” says Bain. “I had letters supporting the cart from every neighborhood business within 1,000 feet. It was denied on the grounds that similar food was being served at a nearby business. When I asked the person who denied my permit to state what that “similar” food was they declined to state what food was too similar. They did imply that they considered “similar” food to be food of any kind. I was told that I would get a chance to appeal, but that appeal never happened. I found myself out an $800 permit fee and a lot of time.”

Paula Tejeda, owner of the empanada business Chile Lindo, described herself as someone who initially sold food on the street, and eventually migrated into opening a permanent space. “Street food is not new to the Mission,” she said. “What is new is that white collar professionals are doing it.” White collar or not, though, she said that street food entrepreneurs were barely getting by, and that the city should take that into account while ticketing and handing out permits.

Bevan Dufty politely thanked everyone for coming around and promised to return in two months with some legislation for all to review. He did not specify what that new legislation would be.

Richard Lee, of the Department of Public Health, offered perhaps the most practical address of the day. “I know that there are carts out there operating without permits,” said Lee. “We can’t inspect them because we don’t know where they are.”

“Keep food below 40, or above 135 degrees,” he said, with no small amount of intensity. “Make sure you use an umbrella or a roof to keep things from falling in the food. Use proper handwashing.”

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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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  1. I will try to do some similar small business, I can’t find a job, I can’t be waiting to long for a wizard, people are looking for a way to survive and do something by themselves that the job market is not doing.