Street Food Scene Mostly Bypasses Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on October 18, 2010 · 35 comments

in berkeley bites,street food

Photo: Kate McEachern's CupKates truck.

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 4th 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.

Photo by Tracey Taylor: Skylight Snowballs serves sweet, street treats.

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.”

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.

Photo: Jon Kosorek of Jon's Street Eats

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.)

Photo: Gail Lillian from Liba's falafel truck.

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 in 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.

Photo: Mobile food trucks, like Liba, brighten city streets.

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?

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Street Cart Cusine: Think Global, Eat Local

Two Berkeley Moms Try Their Hand at Street Eats

A Shout Out for the Eat Real Food Festival

San Francisco’s Street Eats Scene

Eat Real Food Lit Fest: Writers on Street Eats, Growing Greens & More


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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

michelle October 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

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 Snowballs 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……

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I am your friend, so I expect a call next time the snowball truck swings by your street on a hot day, okay?

As for the mobile food fight, some street eat vendors feel it’s getting a little crowded out there. Here’s hoping we don’t see ramen road rage starting anytime soon. There’s room for all kinds of cuisine, no?

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Melanie Haiken October 19, 2010 at 4:49 pm

In Portland, I just love the festively lit vacant lots where several food trucks cluster together with chairs and tables outside. It’s great for families or groups because everyone can choose a different cuisine and still eat together. I REALLY wish we had something like this in Marin, where restaurants seem overpriced to me. We barely even have taco trucks!

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Yes, Melanie, the Portland mobile food scene is in a class of its own. Seattle street eats none too shabby either. Anyone else wanna chime in with our locales around the country that do sidewalk cuisine well?

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Marthaandme October 20, 2010 at 6:48 am

I think these are great inventions and wish we had more in my area.

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

What would you like to see being sold in a mobile truck near you, M&Me?

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart October 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

Wow. I had no idea there would be so many issues around this style of food delivery. I’m actually trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a food truck in the Rocky Mtn West. That’s how rare it is where we live.

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm

As one source noted, there’s nothing easy about being street. You really have to want to sell your wares on the road to deal with all the challenges that arise.

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Sheryl October 20, 2010 at 9:09 am

I think food trucks offer the option of eating outside with lots of variety and fun. Love the creative looks and names, too. We have none around here, in Connecticut, but geographically, it doesn’t really lend itself to food trucks (except maybe in the small cities).

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Yeah, Sheryl, hard to imagine a flourishing street food scene in the dead of winter in New England. But NYC has a bunch, of course.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

Street food is more or less non-existent in New Zealand. I’d love to see the trend picked up here.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Biological Incubation Unit Failure

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm

What would you wanna buy roadside, Melanie? I’m thinking rocket & pumpkin & parmesan sammies would be quite nice.

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Susan October 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Earlier this summer, they had a food truck festival in Boston and it was so crazy/popular, that it’s become a weekly fixture at SoWa Sundays in Boston’s South End. I’m fascinated by this business model, so thanks for sharing this, Sarah!

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Thanks for this tip, Susan. I’ll have to come share some street eats with you next time I’m in your town.

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Ruth Pennebaker October 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm

We have lots of street, trailer and truck food in Austin, too — and I love it. Makes for so much more diversity in cuisines and cooks.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Lines in the Sand and Everywhere Else

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I’ve heard Austin has a happening street food scene, Ruth. I look forward to my next visit and will seek out your tips on favorite mobile eats.

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Alexandra October 20, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I’ve seen food trucks in Cambridge, near MIT, and they are very popular. I can never read your blog without getting very hungry. We have nothing like the variety you describe here on Cape Cod, even at our restaurants!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Fall Foliage &amp Discover Wellfleet

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Sarah Henry October 20, 2010 at 7:49 pm

I feel the same way, Sandy, when I read other food writers (hungry, that is.)

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Kris Bordessa October 20, 2010 at 9:47 pm

This is so surprising to me. I’d expect Berkeley to be all over street vendors! I love these kitschy food venues. Here in Hawaii, we have the famous North Shore shrimp trucks and they are *awesome! (http://honoluluonthecheap.com/2010/03/travel-oahus-famous-shrimp-trucks/)

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Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 8:46 am

Okay, Kris, shrimp trucks on the agenda for my next trip to Hawaii. Thanks for the tips.

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MyKidsEatSquid October 21, 2010 at 6:50 am

I’m going to check out the taco truck food scene in Columbus, Ohio in a couple weeks. Here in Cleveland, they just lifted the ban on food trucks–yeah. And to answer Roxanne’s question, while I can’t speak for the whole Rocky Mountain area, I can say there’s quite a few carts gaining popularity in the 16th Street area in Denver. There’s a Thai cart where the line goes on and on. A colleague explained some of the etiquette behind the particular cart–no more than 3 people in line at a time because each meal takes at least 5 minutes to make, always cash, and get there early. Love food trucks!

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Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 8:48 am

Sounds like you’re all over the street food scene, MKES. Look forward to a report back from Columbus, Ohio. I love that this is a national phenom with regional differences reflecting the community and culture of a place.

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Jennifer Margulis October 21, 2010 at 9:16 am

We don’t have any food carts where I live but there are a lot up in Portland. I just love that scene. Fresh, delicious food, made on the spot, at reasonable prices. If you ever go to Portland, there’s a South African food cart near Mississippi Street which is just phenomenal.

Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After

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Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I have enjoyed some fab mobile food in Portland, Jen, alas the South African chow was not among the street eats I sampled last I was in Stumptown. Next time!

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. October 21, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Interesting explanation of all the pros and cons! I have to say, even though we have a million food trucks here in NYC, I’m not drawn to eat from any of them specifically. Like Caplan said, there are so many brick-and-mortar joints that it’s hard to get to all of them, let alone the mobile eats!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..GUEST POST- Pittsburgh’s Private Taco Club

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Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Appreciate your perspective, Casey, since I hear such good things about “new school” cart food in NYC I figured you’d be flocking to these mobile cuisine carts. But, as you say, the Big Apple has so many great chowhouses worth checking out.

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steph October 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I’ve read a lot about the drama of Berkeley and their anti-food cart attitude. It really is a bummer, but Berkeley is already pretty full of itself. It doesn’t surprise me.
steph´s last [type] ..Lemon Verbena Macaron Recipe

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Sarah Henry October 21, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Say what you will about Berkeley, Steph, it’s certainly not the only city in the Bay Area where it’s tough to sell street food, as Susan Coss notes in the post.

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Lisa October 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I’m a little jealous. We’ve got taco trucks. One sells fresh sliced watermelon, but otherwise we’re talking greasy burritos and chips.
Lisa´s last [type] ..Free ebook- Living Rich by Spending Smart

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