Oakland's Food Truck Future in Limbo

One year into a promising interim policy, the future of mobile food in Oakland remains uncertain.



The year got off to such a promising start for Oakland's seemingly limitless population of street-food enthusiasts — and for the mobile food vendors who want to feed them. A newly passed interim policy allowed food trucks, for the first time, to operate weekly at approved locations outside of the Fruitvale district, as long as they were clustered into permit-carrying "pods" of three or more trucks.

It was easy to imagine that dozens of these so-called "food pods" would spring up all over Oakland — the first shots fired in a bloodless revolution of gourmet cupcakes and Asian-fusion tacos. People would come out in droves, and, buoyed by that success, city officials would quickly move to make mobile food — beyond taco trucks in Fruitvale — a permanent fixture in Oakland's culinary landscape.

But the fact of the matter is that Oakland's food pod experiment saw only minor successes in 2012. Citywide, just seven group-vending locations were established. And two of the pods (the Thursday night pod in front of Splash Pad Park and the Tuesday lunchtime Clay Pod, at the intersection of Clay and 14th streets) closed down earlier than planned — despite the fact that the City of Oakland recently extended its one-year pilot program, allowing existing food pods to continue running at least through July 1, 2013. According to the organizers of those two pods, there was never enough business to justify the ongoing expense of weekly permitting fees.

Meanwhile, city officials don't appear to be much closer to reaching an agreement on a permanent mobile food policy that would ensure that food trucks would be able to operate in Oakland beyond July.

"Here it is a year later, and we don't even have anything to present to [city] council for a permanent policy," said Karen Hester, the organizer of the Bites Off Broadway food pod, which is closed for the winter months. "It just seems like foot dragging, in my opinion."

According to Hester, one of the biggest reasons the food pod program hasn't taken off is that the barriers to entry are too high — more than $600 upfront to apply, plus a couple hundred dollars each week to cover permits, parking meters, and so forth. (When the city extended the interim program, it did reduce the basic weekly permit fee from $100 to $50 — a nice gesture, Hester said, though she wishes the price would be slashed even further.)

Gail Lillian, owner of the LIBA Falafel food truck and organizer of the now-defunct Clay Pod, stressed that city administrators have been nothing if not supportive. But she, too, has been frustrated that Oakland hasn't moved more quickly on the legislation front.

"It was hard to run a pod this year thinking it was just going to end in January," Lillian said.

For their part, city officials note that Oakland simply doesn't have the resources to make mobile food vending one of its highest priorities. Alisa Shen, the city planner who has taken the lead role on mobile food, has a host of other major projects she's coordinating — she's only able to work on the mobile food policy when she happens to have some free time.

Short staffing aside, one of the biggest holdups has been the issue of enforcement. If the interim mobile food policy has failed, it's in large part because the city has lacked the wherewithal, or the political willpower, to actively enforce that policy — that is, to discourage renegade trucks who flout the law and hawk their wares guerilla-style, part of no pod and having pulled no permit.

And why should these solo operators trouble themselves to join a food pod when there's little consequence to breaking the law? Arturo Sanchez, the deputy city administrator, said that, in theory, violators should be charged with a misdemeanor for selling without a permit. But he acknowledged that the reality is that in a city with as much crime as Oakland, the police just aren't going to respond to those kinds of complaints — complaints that are infrequent anyway.

Edward Manasse, Oakland's strategic planning manager, conceded that at present there almost certainly are more trucks operating in the city illegally than legally. He and Sanchez both believe the new mobile food policy needs to include some mechanism that wouldn't put the burden of enforcement on the police but perhaps on a person or group of people who would, as a portion of their job, make sure that food trucks abide by the law.

Despite the skepticism from some food pod organizers, Manasse said the city is committed to getting a permanent mobile food policy drawn up before the pilot program expires — ideally by April or May, he said. That new policy would likely include some way for individual food trucks to operate legally, outside of the pod format. Also on the table: the reduction in fees that Hester would love to see, perhaps by means of changing the framework so that pod organizers and individual food trucks could pay an annual, rather than per-event, fee.

According to Shen, the next steps include an online survey (asking, among other things, where in the city people would like to see more food trucks) and a meeting with a group of stakeholders (food truck owners, the restaurant association, etc.) that will probably take place in early 2013.

"I think that we're making baby steps," Shen said, adding that, in spite of how it may appear, "We are really excited and committed to having a program in place."