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?