The Pizza Hacker in September 2013 talking with the local constabulary. Photo courtesy of Dave Fayram.

The long-awaited changes to San Francisco’s street food laws will be introduced publicly in the coming month, according to Boe Hayward, a legislative aide to Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

The fine details have yet to be hammered out. According to Hayward, however, the permitting process will likely be simplified, costs will change, and it’s expected that control of the permits for street vending on public property will be moved from the San Francisco Police department to the Department of Public Works.

The legislation is meant to support the groundswell  of illegal business that have emerged in the last two years of the recession.  The objective is to make illegal businesses turn legal, and make things easier for those businesses that have already gone through the permit process.

Will these be the changes that street cart vendors asked for at a public hearing last March? “If they really do streamline the permit process, that’s wonderful,” said Larry Bain, co-founder of Let’s Be Frank hotdogs.

But Bain, like many other people who were at the initial hearing, had hopes that the Department of Public Health, not Public Works would be put in charge of the permit process. “Street food is not potholes. The main impact of a cart is not about the space it takes up on the sidewalk – it’s whether the food is safe to eat.”

But he is glad to see the possibility of the police department being out of the process. “While I am not saying that there was corruption,” he said. “There was certainly the appearance of corruption. It would be interesting to see how many people went in there in good faith, paid their non-refundable permit fee, and mysteriously got turned down.”

Two years ago, Bain was turned down for a location in Mint Plaza, despite, he said, having a letter of support from the Mayor’s Office of Business Development, the Department of Public Health, and every business within a 1000 feet of the proposed location. The appeal hearing that he requested was, he said, neither scheduled nor denied, in a particularly Kafka-esque way. The experience left him somewhat jaded.

When asked by Mission Loc@l whether he will miss being in charge of permits for street food vendors, SFPD officer Alfredie Stewart just laughed. “I’ll be relieved. Though I think that the SFPD should be in charge. When the permits massage parlors were moved away from the SFPD to the Health Department – they lost all control.”

The permitting process holds some mystery even to Officer Stewart, an experienced officer who deals with virtually every police-related permit in the city. “I remember Bain,” he said. “They were really pushing for him. I approved his application. He got close.” In another case, Stewart tried to cite a long-term cart owner, only to find that the individual was able to bypass the police department entirely, and retain their permit.

In the blog maintained by Matt Cohen, of the San Francisco Cart Project, Cohen ticks off a list of regulations that he would like to see changed – very few of which were covered in the legislation proposed earlier this year. Still, Cohen is sweetly optimistic about the coming months, at least legislatively.

“The SFPD should be in charge of permit enforcement instead of oversight. The DPH will still be in charge of private property, and putting the DPW in charge of understanding where people should be on the street – that’s their job. Makes sense.”

According to Cohen, San Francisco has regulated street food very differently than nearby cities, like Alameda and Oakland. In fact, San Francisco regulates its street food in ways that would be unusual in almost every city. Unlike other cities, for example, San Francisco requires a street vendor to go through an entirely new health and fire inspection for each separate location that it is parked at.

“You never get 100% of what you want,” said Cohen. “But if all goes as planned, the new legislation will eliminate a lot of the inconsistencies and bottlenecks in the permit process. And then more people will get involved in street food, because it’s great.

“And then we’ll go on. And make more changes.”

Note: An earlier version of this article said that the legislation would be introduced at the City Neighborhood Services Committee this morning. It has been changed to reflect more current information.

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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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