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An olive branch for SF's street food scene
Signs of the uneven economic recovery are popping up everywhere in San Francisco: new businesses are moving into developing neighborhoods like Potrero Hill, the revitalization of Market Street’s buildings and soaring rent costs show one side of the booming economy. But another side reveals a depressed economy with Silicon Valley’s tech giants cutting jobs and the rise of homelessness in the city.
And some times you can see both sides on one block, or in one industry - like in the food business.
Starting up a food truck was attractive to many entrepreneurs because of its flexibility and affordability. And in just a few years, the San Francisco street food scene exploded. There are now food trucks with every food imaginable. And they even have their own marketplaces like Off The Grid, which serves more than 15,000 meals a week in the Bay Area.
But some brick and mortar shops are fighting back for their piece of the foodie pie. These restaurant owners say it’s unfair for them to pay for their primo real estate, while a food truck can just park in front of their business.
In an effort to calm the waters between the two sides, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed legislation governing new food trucks - specifying when and where trucks can do business. The law has been in effect for just a few weeks and it’s still unclear whether food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants have called a truce.
A four-wheeled phenomenon
You can tell when it’s lunchtime in the Financial District. On the corner of Bush and Battery Streets, you’ll see a long line of people at a bright orange and pink food truck.
The truck is Curry Up Now and they’re still at the same spot where they first got their permit to serve food back in 2010. On the menu are various authentic Indian dishes served in a familiar form - basically, Indian-style burritos.
The combination of convenience, quick-service and diverse foods is what brings customers to food trucks like this one. Desiree Mingoa works nearby. She says she orders from Curry Up Now almost every week.
“I ordered the Tikka Masala Chicken Burrito,” says Mingoa. “Everything just tastes good, like the sauce, the spices, it’s just good! It’s just around the corner from my job. Food trucks are awesome!”
“We started off in September of 2009 as a little food truck,” says Amir Hosseini, a co-owner of Curry Up Now. “[It was] just kind of a random idea.”
Hosseini started the food truck with Akash and Rana Kapoor. He says Curry Up Now got into the street food scene in 2009. It was just after the financial crisis and food trucks were everywhere.
“After a few months we knew that we had something here and really pushed forward on it and turned into a full-time business,” says Hosseini.
Since then, Curry Up Now has become one of the most popular trucks in the street food scene. That’s why Hosseini and his partner Akash made sure to participate in the drafting of a new food truck law. Hosseini says it was a compromise for both restaurants and food trucks.
“I'd like to think that we have a healthy balance of what works and doesn't work,” says Hosseini. “Brick and mortars, restaurants - it's kinda set in stone. You know what you need to do. You know what those guidelines are. With food trucks, for awhile, I think that it wasn't so clear cut on a mass emphasis.”
The new legislation requires food trucks to stay at least 75 feet away from brick and mortar restaurants. Before, food trucks could operate near any restaurant - as long as the food being served was different than the existing restaurant’s fare.
“I think time will tell exactly how it works out,” says Matt Cohen, founder of the Bay Area’s largest food truck marketplace, Off the Grid.
Cohen is also street food’s biggest defender. He’s been working on the new legislation for two years.
Cohen says changes to the law were needed because it wasn’t clear enough for food truck operators. Many didn’t know what was and wasn’t legal went it came to serving food on public property. Cohen also says, he wanted the law to recognize that food trucks are an important part of the food industry.
“Street food businesses are a part of the neighborhood that they serve. And hopefully they are adding something, a vibrancy and a sense of on-street activity to a space,” says Cohen. “They're not just simply poaching customers from the side of the street.”
The new legislation is also designed to lower the bar for those looking to get into the business. Permit costs have been as high as $10,000, without a guarantee of being approved. The new legislation would lower the permit fees and also expedite the process. It’s something food truck owner Casey Crynes would’ve appreciated when he was applying for a permit.
“The whole permitting process for me took eight months, from the time that I submitted the application and went through the hearing process because there were a few objections,” says Crynes. “There were restaurants nearby that weren't really too thrilled that I was going to be around.”
Crynes owns Casey's Pizza, a food truck that has been serving East Coast style pies in the Financial District since 2011.
When it comes to relationships with brick-and-mortar restaurants, Crynes says many of the objections stem from misunderstandings. Many restaurants are open for eight hours or more while food trucks usually operate for two or three hours a day. Crynes also says a lot of brick and mortar restaurants owners don't realize that food trucks have the same kind of expenses as them.
“It's all relative -- we're making X dollars and they're making Z,” says Crynes. “We pay sales tax. We pay workers comp. We pay federal tax. We're the same kind of legitimate food business as them.”
Many organizations were at the table during the drafting of this new law. One that represented both the interests of restaurants and food trucks was The Golden Gate Restaurant Association. Rob Black is the association’s executive director.
“There's not a lot of places where the City and County allows private business owners to operate on public land for profit,” says Black. “And so the City's tried to come up with a way to regulate that in a way that works for everyone.”
San Francisco’s food truck laws have been around since the 1970s, when pretzel and hot dog carts were popular. But the law has changed very little since then. Black says this new law is an attempt to catch up with the city’s evolving food scene. But, He says it’s hard to tell if it will work for everyone right away.
“It's never gonna be perfect for everyone, but it can be a place where we're promoting and fostering the innovation that the food truck community brings to our culinary scene here in San Francisco,” says Black. “At the same time insuring that it's a fair competition where somebody doesn't get to use the public right of way to unfairly compete with someone else.”
“The funny thing is, operating a food truck is kinda of like operating a restaurant, just on a smaller scale,” says Curry Up Now’s Hosseini.
Hosseini knowns that first hand because in 2011 Curry Up Now was doing well enough to open a restaurant in San Mateo. Earlier this year, the company opened up it’s third restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Hosseini says that they haven’t had any problems with their food truck brothers so far. In fact, Hosseini says the San Mateo location welcomes other food trucks.
“It brings people to the area,” says Hosseini. “We're totally okay with that. The food is really what we're all about. It's about eating good food.”
And delicious food is certainly what it boils down to for Bay Area foodies.