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Food Trucks Prohibited

While cities around the country are embracing mobile food vendors, Oakland still treats most of them as scofflaws.

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"Are you kidding me?" August said, pulling a couple of thick stacks of applications out of her bag. "Right now I'm completely discouraged by the lack of ownership at the city council level."

Even so, August thinks she has some leverage now that didn't exist at the beginning of the summer, a precedent the city set, something outside the endless meetings and updates of Manasse's office, something even the chamber of commerce or the various business improvement districts didn't have to sign off on. Something called Bites Off Broadway.


The afternoon's slowly sinking into evening here in Temescal, where about a dozen trucks have set up on 45th Street, along the curb that banks the grass setback in front of Studio One. If anyone needed convincing about the ability of a mobile-food pod to get people to gather on the street, this is it: families straggling in from surrounding streets, Temescal dudes with black plastic eyewear, dog walkers who may or may not have come here intentionally. Matt Cohen, Shelly Garza, Elizabeth August: Anybody who's been frustrated by the impossibility of doing street food outside the Pilot Program zone hasn't been able to do what Bites Off Broadway organizer Karen Hester has managed to do here, more or less quietly, since early June.

Hester is a curious case. She looks like your aunt who loves to go day hiking in the hills: sunburned face, athletic sandals, and a propensity for fleece. Through her events company, Hesternet Productions, she's used to organizing annual gatherings like street fairs and festivals, and she self-identifies as a community organizer without much particular interest in communities beyond Rockridge and Temescal. The latter is where Hester lives, in a cohousing compound – one that happens to be just across the street from the first locale for Bites, back when it was called Bites On Broadway.

The original plan for Bites was to site it in the deep plaza in front of Oakland Technical High School on Broadway, back when Elizabeth August was on board as Hester's co-organizer. The idea was to do something that felt as much like a weekly street fair as a straight-up food pod, with family games, entertainment – maybe even art shows from Oakland Tech students.

But when it became clear that the school district wasn't on board (Hester said she had something like verbal approval from administrators at Oakland Tech), and Bites On Broadway wouldn't have permission to set up on campus, August — as well as several vendors — decided to decamp.

Faced with no permission, and no way to get a permit to operate on the street, Hester did what no other food-pod organizer had the balls to try before. She just did it, guerilla-style, on 45th Street at Broadway, and used the boggy north lawn of the high school as a place where people could hang out and eat. With no permission from anybody. "If there had been a policy to fit into, I would have applied for it," Hester says. She says her idea all along, after seeing the success of the mini food pod at Art Murmur, was to bring vendors to the food desert of Broadway.

Now, tagging Temescal or nearby Piedmont Avenue as a food desert is a stretch, to say the least, but Hester did manage to bring palpable excitement Friday nights to a part of the neighborhood where pedestrians are scarce. Did that also put vendors in a vulnerable situation? It did — though, judging from guys like James Whitehead of Fist of Flour, operating outside the law is something of a calculated risk.

After three weeks, the police shut it down. A neighbor — maybe two — complained, Hester says, though she's not sure what the specific beef was (maybe noise from generators, maybe street congestion, maybe just because a lot of Oakland residents don't like change).

Within a week Hester met with the police, and with Arturo Sanchez, assistant to the city administrator. By the following week she had a custom special event permit: six vendors, once a week through October 21, on the curb outside Studio One — Oakland park property, it should be noted, though Bites sets up in the public right-of-way. Ed Manasse must have cursed when he heard about it: After all the work he's done — all the meetings like the one in Hearing Room 3 — after all the heat staff took after last May's fail, when reform proposals fell in the council chamber with a thud, all it took to set a precedent for food pods was a woman who claimed she didn't even know she was supposed to file an application with the Alameda County Health Department. It's hard to tell if Hester is clueless or calculating. Whatever she is, she's managed to open the door, at least a crack, for expanded street food in Oakland.

Hester says she plans to do Bites Off Broadway again next year, though she's thinking of starting it up again earlier than June, maybe once the rains stop. She says she doesn't have any ambitions to be like Matt Cohen — some big promoter of food pods — though if it were possible, maybe she'd consider organizing a street-food night at Mosswood Park, precisely where Elizabeth August has her sights set. "It would bring the neighborhood together," Hester says.

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