When they're successful, weekly street-food events have the feel of broad urban gatherings, places where people from a wider city region can mingle while waiting in line for lumpia, grilled cheese sandwiches, or cupcakes, reinforcing their connection as citizens of a particular place. That's true even for small events, where as few as five trucks flip up their overhangs and open for business. At their best, temporary street-food pods serve as microcosms of a city's broader culture of public eating.
Sadly, that hasn't been true of Bites on Broadway, Oakland's recent experiment with food trucks. The Friday night event launched June 10 at the edge of Temescal, on 45th Street at Broadway, spilling onto the narrow, perennially boggy strip of lawn along the north end of Oakland Technical High School. Though they claimed to have the support of city authorities and school officials, it was clear from the start that organizers of Bites on Broadway never had a permit to operate. On July 1, citing unspecified complaints, police shut the event down.
Last week organizer Karen Hester had a series of discussions with the Oakland Police Department and the city administrator's office and worked out a deal: Bites on Broadway could return, with a special events permit, if it set up across the street from Oakland Tech, stayed off its lawn, and avoided neighbors' complaints.
A smaller-than-usual Bites on Broadway unfolded last Friday night — volunteers stationed on Oakland Tech's lawn prevented those who showed up from eating their burgers on the grass. Hester told What the Fork last week she'd have to reapply for the permit every week, but hoped eventually to persuade the Oakland Unified School District to allow vendors to set up on Broadway and allow it to spill onto Oakland Tech's broad front lawn and plaza.
All of this has shown the flaws in the original planning for Bites on Broadway. Even if OUSD had been on board, Oakland Tech is a less than ideal location. Street-food events like Off the Grid have found success by transforming civic spaces, the places that feel like district hubs or commons: Civic Center Plaza, UN Plaza, Fort Mason Center, even a corner of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto used to hosting the weekly farmers' market. Oakland Tech was always too out of the way, too specific to Temescal and Rockridge to feel like it could ever belong to all of Oakland.
Better choices in North Oakland might have been Mosswood Park, the same patch of DMV parking lot that hosts the Temescal farmers' market, even MacArthur BART. Why didn't organizers think bigger, proposing a food truck pod for Jack London Square or Frank Ogawa Plaza? By setting up in a location better suited for a neighborhood block party, organizers doomed Bites on Broadway to feel neighborhood-specific, even slightly exclusive.
And anyway, what incentive did OUSD have to agree to host the event? Before getting the okay to bring Off the Grid to North Berkeley, organizer Matt Cohen and his partners in the North Shattuck Association went through a process of enlisting local support, trying to persuade the skeptical, making concessions, negotiating with neighborhood brick-and-mortar restaurants in the area to give them visibility.
Fortunately, Bites on Broadway has shown itself capable of rallying enthusiasm in the neighborhoods it touches. And though the first few non-permitted events left vendors vulnerable with authorities, it's good to know that Bites on Broadway's organizers are now working directly with the city. Enough of Oakland's citizens have now shown they'll support a weekly street-food gathering. Let's hope the organizers learn a few lessons from their North Berkeley counterparts.
There's nothing like cupcakes to brighten up an emerging microhood, a proposition that neighbors of Actual Café can now test. Eurydice Manning opened her first retail shop and bakery, James and the Giant Cupcake, on San Pablo Avenue near Alcatraz on Monday.
Manning launched James back in 2008 as a delivery-only operation based in Berkeley — customers ordered from a daily menu of cupcake flavors, and got them dropped at their door within 24 hours. "It was a word-of-mouth thing that just took off," Manning said, "especially here in the East Bay, where there aren't that many cupcake options." She named her business after Roald Dahl's 1961 kids' novel James and the Giant Peach partly because she likes Dahl, partly for the absurdity of it. "People said, 'It's too long, no one's gonna type that address in,'" Manning said. "I thought, the fact that it's ridiculous is gonna make it awesome."
Manning's taken over the space at 6326 San Pablo just south of Actual, near Alcatraz: four tables inside (she hopes to add sidewalk seating eventually), a whimsical circus design theme, and drip and French press coffee with Bicycle beans. "We want to stick to the basics," Manning said. "We don't want to be overwhelmed, not when we're just starting out."
Manning says she hopes to grow the variety of cupcakes she offers, once she gets the shop established. She's currently making a single vegan cupcake (a gluten-free one, too), but wants to develop more, especially since nearby Donut Farm is a vegan magnet, another reason Manning says she feels good about opening in the Golden Gate District, besides the fact that Manning's grandmother lived here.
"There's a pretty nice art scene, people are trying to establish a Temescal feel over here," she said. "It's cool that Oakland is having more pockets." Pockets filled with cupcakes — and businesses with awesome names.