Gail Lillian knew it when she saw it. Last year, the owner of the Liba Falafel truck saw Emeryville's mix of weekday office workers and the relative dearth of restaurants, and figured the city would be prime ground for rolling out a mobile food business. Plus her prep kitchen is in the East Bay. "The formula I was looking for was really satisfied by Emeryville's daytime industry," Lillian says.
Not to mention that San Francisco is excruciatingly hostile to mobile start-ups, especially for those with the notion to park on public property. These days, Liba parks one day a week on a private parking strip in Potrero Hill, another on city parkland in Civic Center, and every other week at Off the Grid Civic Center. The rest of the time Lillian rolls between two public spots on Emeryville's Hollis Street. She reckons her permitting costs in Emeryville were in "the hundreds of dollars."
And in the city? "I'm laughing because San Francisco is such a web of confusion to me," Lillian says, "I don't even know how much I've paid altogether, unless I check all my paperwork." She says it must be "in the thousands, and the thousands all over again."
Emeryville, then, has allowed Lillian a chance at start-up success. Only, talk to Doyle Street Café co-owner George Masarweh, and the success of food trucks like Liba has come at the expense of local brick-and-mortars.
"There are too many of them, number one," says Masarweh of Emeryville's mobile vendors.Masarweh opened Doyle Street two decades ago with his brother Albert (they also own Café M in Berkeley's Fourth Street shopping corridor). The diner sits on a quiet, leafy street at the edge of a residential neighborhood, cut off from Emeryville's main office zone by traffic-strafed Stanford Avenue. "Especially at times like this, when you're allowing these people to move around anywhere they like, and we've been here 20 years, paying top dollar for everything." It's a reference to the soured economy, which has made any competition that much more bitter.
But what really pisses off Masarweh? That vendor Jon's Street Eats can set up on a prime intersection nearby at Stanford and Hollis, and have all the visibility Doyle Street lacks. "He puts up signs ― we can't put up signs. He puts chairs out: Now he's running an outdoor café." Masarweh says there's a city ordinance against businesses setting out A-frame signs on the sidewalk. He says he and his brother were busted a few years ago for putting a sign at the very intersection where Jon's now sets up ― with a sign.
"We can compete with him on food," Masarweh says, "but not when people can get it cheaper at the carts. We have to pay for service, for so many things this guy doesn't have to pay for." Masarweh calculates that Doyle Street's business has dropped 20 percent since last year, when the carts began to proliferate ― though he can't say for certain how much of that would have happened even without competition from the carts. Masarweh's evidence is partly circumstantial: "I have seen my customers standing there in line," he says.
Bottom line, says Masarweh, is that he doesn't want the carts driven out of town. Just regulated the way his restaurant is. "I run my business honest. I don't want to take away his opportunity of making money, but he's doing it wrong," he says. First on the list: No menu competition. If Jon's were selling, say burritos ― something Doyle Street doesn't ― Masarweh says he'd be fine with the competition. But Jon's sells sandwiches and salads, the backbone of Doyle Street's lunchtime menu.
"It should be regulated by the city," Masarweh says. "But if I'm regulated and he's not, then what good is the law?"
For her part, Liba's Gail Lillian says she's sympathetic to restaurant owners like Masarweh ― to a point. "I have some amount of compassion for the business owners, but we just have different business models," Lillian says. "When it rains, they provide. When it's sunny and people want something different, I provide." She sees mobile and stationary food providers as complementary of one another, not as adversaries. Besides, says Lillian, "for me and for [Jon's Street Eats'] Jon [Kosorek, a former restaurant chef], he's been in the industry a long time, I've been in the industry 20 years. We could both easily have restaurants. I don't want to be fighting with other restaurant owners."
Tomorrow: Can vendors and brick-and-mortar owners agree on increased regulations?