Why does the street food scene bypass Berkeley?

Kate McEachern and her CupKate mobile.

At Berkeley’s Spice of Life Festival yesterday, for the first time in the event’s eight-year history, street carts were part of the mix. Jon’s Street EatsPrimo ParrillaChairman Bao and Skylite Snowballs were among the dozen or so street-food purveyors who signed up to join Gourmet Ghetto chefs and local D.I.Y. food artisans doling out morsels for the masses.

Normally, though, there’s a dearth of brightly colored food trucks roaming the streets of Berkeley, while Oakland, San Francisco and Emeryville have thriving street-eat scenes. A taco truck or two can usually be found in West Berkeley, a couple of food trucks work the Bancroft-Telegraph corridor near campus, and Cupkates makes a weekly appearance on Fourth Street. That’s about it.

Red tape seems the biggest barrier to food trucks cruising city streets. Sidewalk cuisine purveyors say the cost and bureaucratic hassle of doing business in Berkeley make it less desirable to serve meals on wheels here than in other Bay Area locations.

Some point to the fact that the city is already saturated with brick-and-mortar joints, lacks a light industry customer base, and includes a significant student population unwilling to pony up much cash for food.

Despite getting her start selling near UC and in the Elmwood, Kate McEachern, owner of CupKates, advises nascent food truck entrepreneurs to look beyond Berkeley: “I would encourage newcomers to look at locations where the street food culture is strong, demand is high, and there’s community support — and, for the most part, that’s in San Francisco and Emeryville right now.”

Not everyone is a fan of mobile food trucks setting up shop here. “Personally, I get the charm of these trucks,” says Michael Caplan, director of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. “But this is a very food-oriented city already, we have about one restaurant for every 300 residents, so I understand the concerns we’ve fielded from a few restaurant owners in what is a very competitive environment.”

Liba, which serves falafel and shoestring sweet potato fries

Still, San Francisco is also overrun with restaurants and its street food scene is going strong. And the grub dished up by mobile trucks typically costs less than cafe offerings, which would seem appealing to a campus crowd hungry for appealing and affordable grab-and-go options.

Just over the border from Berkeley in Emeryville that’s certainly the case. Unlike Berkeley, Emeryville  is home to large companies such as Pixar, Bayer and Novartis, and, on any given business day, peckish employees can choose lunch chow from street vendors peddling falafelKorean BBQgourmet sandwichesseasonal California fareauthentic Argentine grilled goods, and, of course, cupcakes.

For many vendors, Berkeley was never even on their radar. “It doesn’t fit my business model, which is near industry and away from retail,” says Gail Lillian, who runs Liba, a lime-green truck serving falafel and shoestring sweet potato fries to fans in Emeryville and San Francisco. Shari Washburn, co-owner of the recently opened Ebbett’s Good to Go, and a Berkeley resident, says: ”Honestly, we never really considered Berkeley. We figured not too many students were going to pay $8 for a sandwich.” Ebbett’s Good to Go also focuses on San Francisco and Emeryville.

A review of the food truck vendor requirements in Berkeley offers some insights into why a place known for its innovative cuisine may not be so inviting to street-food providers.

Mobile food vendors need to apply to the city’s Environmental Health Division to get a health permit and the Finance Department for a business license. They must also get their routes approved. Currently around 30 mobile food vendors have health permits for Berkeley, says Manuel Ramirez, manager of the city’s Environmental Health Division. In foot traffic hot spots — such as the Telegraph-Bancroft-University area, where just five street sellers may serve food — there are caps on the number of food carts to address competition issues with established eateries, says Ramirez. He notes that the city’s zoning code regarding mobile vendors is under review. (Calls to the code enforcement unit were not returned by publication time.)

Jon Kosorek of Jon’s Street Eats

For food trucks that want to operate on public property, Berkeley’s application process only cycles around every five years — which can be a deal breaker for mobile food folk trying to start up a small business in a down economy. Then there’s the initial expense — permits, taxes, and fees can cost a few thousand dollars.  Liba owner Lillian says she pays around $1,000 in annual fees to operate in Emeryville. In San Francisco, though, where fees are levied for each location, it costs significantly more.

But it’s not easy selling street eats anywhere, says Susan Coss, director of the Eat Real Festival, an annual street food event featuring more than 50 food trucks at Oakland’s Jack London Square.  For starters, there’s the crazy-making patchwork of rules regarding permits for this food service.  (Some purveyors follow the letter of the law, while others run more renegade operations). Last week the New York Times noted that cities around the country are trying to ratchet up the regulation of these edible enterprises.

Crackdowns occur locally too. Recently, Primo Parrilla had its grill permit revoked in Emeryville, and a task force has been set up there to address concerns about the food trucks, including those from local restaurants like Doyle Street Cafe, regarding competition for customers. CupKates temporarily experienced difficulties with Berkeley last year, as documented on this site and elsewhere.

It’s tricky getting a clear picture of a business that is by definition a little under the radar. No street vendor was willing to go on the record about run-ins with city or county agencies over permits, or disputes with restaurant or cafe owners over turf — and even attempts to get fixed-food businesses in Berkeley to comment on the impact of mobile food trucks in their area were unsuccessful.

And yet, Oakland boasts a bevy of trucks serving home-style Mexican food along International Boulevard. And it’s the HQ for Eat Real. San Francisco has a lively street cart scene in neighborhoods like the Mission District, where famished souls frequent food sellers whose carts sport catchy logos like Curry Up NowAdobo Hobo, and the Creme Brulee Cart. The city is also home to the San Francisco Street Food Festival, sponsored by the food business incubator La Cocina.  Along with organizer Matt Cohen, the non-profit recently launched Off the Grid, a weekly street-food event featuring several trucks parked in one spot, all the better to sample wares from more than one source. Off the Grid now operates in three San Francisco locations.

So the question remains: Why isn’t Berkeley on the street food map? And, perhaps equally importantly: Do local eaters feel they’re missing out?

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • http://twitter.com/kukkurovaca Nick

    Yeah, I find this pretty frustrating. I get that there isn’t a reliably lunch crowd anywhere in Berkeley the way there is in Emeryville, but I bet vendors would do good business in Berkeley at an “Off the Grid” style weekly or bi-weekly gathering.

    Then again, maybe not. The turn out at Spice of Life was pretty lackluster — which I’m sure is in large part thanks to rain, but still. There was virtually no line at Chairman Bao, as opposed to the stadium-filling line they normally command — which can’t give them much incentive to return to Berkeley.

  • Rhiannon

    I definitely feel like I’m missing out! I miss being able to pick up Cupkates for friends and coworkers during the week, and while driving to Lake Merritt nearly every Sunday for Twirl and Dip is a trip well worth it, I would love to see them parked in Berkeley every now and then–and not just because I’d be able to justify more butterscotch sundaes if I could walk off some of the calories on the way back. And despite working in SF a few times a week, I didn’t get a chance to check out Chairman Bao until the Spice of Life festival, and now I’m hooked.

    I know it seems silly to complain about a lack of fancy food trucks in Berkeley given how many great food options there are, but they really would fill a need: right now weekday lunch in Berkeley, especially in the downtown and campus areas, means choosing between cheap-and-mediocre and tasty-and-expensive. There is a very small handful of exceptions, but food trucks like Chairman Bao, Curry Up Now, and Jon’s Street Eats would make finding decent food for lunch a lot easier.

  • Bryan

    I’m surprised this article didn’t mention Desi Dog or the taco trailer that are always at Bancroft and Telegraph. Those are most definitely street food, but they’re certainly not “gourmet” and they’re almost semi-permanent now, the way they operate.

    I agree that students are tightwads when it comes to food. This is why (with a few exceptions) most of the food in the Telegraph area is cheap garbage.

  • Gibson

    “A taco truck or two can usually be found in West Berkeley, a couple of food trucks work the Bancroft-Telegraph corridor near campus, and Cupkates makes a weekly appearance on 4th Street. That’s about it.”

    They did. : )

  • Valerie

    Yes, I feel left out! Though your article helps shed light on the decisions these vendors have made. But…some do dinner trade, can’t they come here then? (Hello, Jon’s…)

  • Hungry Local

    Would it be possible for Matt Cohen to talk with the Berkeley permit people about a possible different sort of permit, for a (just) once a week “Off The Grid” in Berkeley? Vendors could cycle and trade-off, on a once-every-other-week appearance, much like the vendors do now at OTG on SF days. This would allow for variety as well as allow the off-cycle vendors to travel elsewhere on their off-days.

  • Easy A
  • http://offthegridsf.com Matt Cohen

    Hey all,

    Sarah great article.

    We’re actively looking for a location in the Berkeley area for an Off the Grid event in the spring.

    Hopefully we’ll be able to find something to make it work.

    Thanks for supporting Street Food!

  • Hungry Local

    Matt, Thanks. Such good news. Chairman Bao in Berkeley once every other week? Heaven on earth. I’ll put in the good word at City Hall. If the permit people tasted just one bun and just one cupcake (among other treats), they would run (not walk) to you with a permit. Until spring.

  • Amy

    I love me some food truck food, but I do wonder how the brick&mortar food joints feel about it. The other day, I saw the snow cone truck parked outside of Ici on College, and a friend witnessed the cupcake(?) truck was parked outside of Betty’s on 4th. Makes sense to draw from the long lines of people waiting for Betty’s or Ici, but it’s kind of in-your-face competition.

    West Berkeley has a lot of worker bees. There are decent food choices in the low range – but I think there’s plenty of room for more options. I follow the falafel truck on Facebook, and roll over to Emeryville some days to partake.

  • Kay

    OK, please don’t flame me, but I just don’t get the appeal of CupKates.

    Oh, yeah, I’ve tried some, bought the requisite box of six earlier this year — all of the flavors — and sampled them with my dad and husband.

    They were pretty, but we honestly couldn’t figure out what the excitement was about, other than the different flavors. They weren’t cheap, either.

    I can’t believe people will run after a truck and stand in line just to get one of these things. Is this process part of the charm of CupKates? Actually, I can better envision lining up at something like a churros cart, but not for an item so easily found — and just as delicious — at so many of our locally owned bakeries.

    And their business hours are far better too.

    I’ll take those black bottom cupcakes — I snagged two today at our Berkeley Farmers Market for $5 — ANY DAY. And, no, I don’t work for Phoenix Pastificio. And I’ll gladly pick up goodies at my neighborhood bakeries, Crixa and Sweet Adeline. I ordered my wedding cake from the latter several years ago. From the popularity of just those two bakeries, I suspect I am far from alone in my sentiments. Maybe because it’s taken so long for South Berkeley to be blessed with such quality businesses that I really appreciate the feeling of community that these shops offer. I just don’t get that with a business like CupKates. Sorry.

    After the CupKates baptism, it did made me think a bit about how I spend my snack money in town. For the most part, I prefer to patronize businesses that are taking the risk to set up shop in Berkeley, not just someone (IMO) who may be Twittering over here to cash in on the cache that our locally owned businesses have worked hard to establish. And they also provide jobs in our community. So, if these businesses get irritated at the likes of a CupKates, I have to say I honestly can’t blame them.

  • Daryl

    If a dinner truck drove through my neighborhood like the old ice cream trucks, I would be a steady patron. Now there’s a business waiting to happen!

  • michelle

    yes! i feel like i am missing out! i’m anchored to a desk, i’ve rarely got time to go out and sit down in a restaurant and order lunch, or head over to a bakery and pick up dessert.
    i want carts in MY berkeley neighborhood! :)
    the greatest thing has happened: twice a week Skylight Snowball’s van sets up in front of Star Grocery (claremont neighborhood) and it’s the highlight of my week as I work on the block. i count the days between visits…. i even call friends and let them know that the van has arrived and ask them to come down and share.
    one odd bit of info: one of the roving van owners did tell me that she recently set up on fourth street (a day when no other food vans were there) and shortly thereafter received a call from another food van owner saying that fourth street is taken, off limits to any other food vans and please go find your own spot.
    very odd……

  • Gibson

    A food truck turf war!!!

  • Guest

    Article said “New York Times noted that cities around the country are trying to ratchet up the regulation of these edible enterprises….” Yeah, you bet. Because they’re lobbied by the Fortune 100′s to assassinate the American worker & people are too stupid to realize that is EXACTLY the problem. It’s all part of the banking oligarchs agenda to assassinate U.S. entrepreneurialism!!!!! PEOPLE ARE TOO STUPID TO SEE THIS. THEY’LL CITE STUPID REASON FOR WHY IT’S NOT PART OF A BIGGER WEB OF DECIET BUY THEY’RE WRONG!!!!! IDIOTS!! AMERICAN PUBLIC IS BEING ATTACKED BY OLIGARCHS!!
    I’ll tell you why the food thing by passes Berkeley….that lady in Berkeley who handles all this stuff is a piece of work!! They plant stupid, mean people like her in places specifically to destroy business. I’ve been told by many sources what a fool this woman is. They all hate her…but she’s slated to retire this December so Im told. Lets see if they place another mini-tyrant in her place. Most probable will. 
    Berkeley is a socialist/Maoist fascist little minion state- full of socialist administrators put there specifically to demote business & make it hard to succeed! Have you seen Telegraph Ave lately? It looks like a post nuclear road warrior ghetto slum!! Business is dead!!! And those bureaucrats at Berkeley city hall LOVE IT!!! Wake up you idiots!!! Wake up!! You’re living standards, lives, life style is being assassinated as we speak!!