Jay Hamada thought he was doing everything right, spending thousands of dollars and wading through months of confusing permit applications to get the proper licenses for his JapaCurry food truck. But this week, Hamada found out that even if you follow the letter of San Francisco's mobile vending laws, you may not be free to do business.
When SFoodie first spoke with Hamada in early November, he was in the final stages of permitting for JapaCurry, looking forward to his premiere at Off the Grid: Fort Mason later that month. And Hamada ― a former IT worker who sold his house in Silicon Valley to come up with the capital to launch his Japanese curry and bento box truck ― told us he was applying for a permanent lunch spot somewhere downtown.
Hamada got that curbside lunch spot downtown for JapaCurry ― two, actually. One is at Mission and New Montgomery streets, where he rolled up for the first time on Jan. 5. Spot number two is at Second Street near Mission, where Hamada set up for business on Tuesday of this week. But while Hamada says owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants in the area asked to see his permit when his truck first opened for business on Mission, he wasn't quite prepared for the angry reaction he got Tuesday from Alison Rowe, owner of the Harvest and Rowe cafe at 55 Second St.
Hamada says Rowe told him she was going to block his spot on the curb in front of 75 Second St., even tough the Police Department issued a permit for the JapaCurry truck to park there and sell food on Mondays and Tuesdays. "She called the police," Hamada says. "Now she's writing a letter a talking to all the restaurant owners, saying I'm parking there more than an hour." Now, Hamada says, he may have no choice but to look for another spot to park his truck, even though the city says he has a right to be on Second. "I don't want to make trouble," he says. "If all the rest [of the restaurants] get together ― especially the owner of Harvest and Rowe, who told me she's going to block my spot ― I don't want to stay."
Rowe declined to talk to SFoodie for this story. But we did obtain a copy of a letter she wrote, dated Jan. 19 and addressed to District 6 supervisor Jane Kim and cc'd to a long list of recipients, including other members of the board, Golden Gate Restaurant Association director Kevin Westlye, and the Police Department's permits officer. In the letter, Rowe states that the JapaCurry truck "poses an immediate threat to mine and the other brick and mortar restaurants nearby," and she makes no bones about wanting it to disappear.
"I would like your help to expedite the removal of the truck from our neighborhood," Rowe writes. "The commercial parking space where Mr. Hamada parked his food truck has a one hour limit and is 20 feet from the edge of my café's footprint, which includes permitted outdoor seating just steps from Mr. Hamada's truck."
Matt Cohen, a mobile vending business consultant and organizer of S.F.'s Off the Grid events, says the situation on Second Street is precisely why the city agreed to amend its permitting rules late last year. Cohen says Hamada got his permit under the old rules, which allowed the Police Department to decide where a mobile vendor could set up for business, without having to notify restaurants in the area. Under the new regulations ― which the Supervisors passed unanimously in mid-November, the mayor signed, and is now in its final stages before taking effect ― permit authority is with the Department of Public Works, and food truck vendors are required to notify brick-and-mortars that they've applied to sell in a particular area.
"This situation is the perfect example of why the regulations needed to be changed in the first place," Cohen says. A DPW hearing is scheduled for next week, a chance for the public to weigh in on the proposed reforms. If there are no substantial changes, the new rules could go into effect as soon as Feb. 1.
The Golden Gate Restaurant Association's Kevin Westlye agrees that the permitting laws needed to be changed, noting that the GGRA endorsed the mobile food vending reform measure. Westlye says he hopes that, in this interim period, when authority is being transferred from the police to the DPW, the city would hold off on issuing any new permits. "In Mr. Hamada's case," Westlye says, "we'd just want to make sure that he didn't rush to apply for his permits under the old rules, knowing they might change ."
Regina Dick-Endrizzi, director of the city's Office of Small Business, also thinks that the new rules, with their notification and public hearings of permit applications, will resolve future conflicts like these. "Part of the new rules is that we know we're going to be opening up the landscape so that the mobile food businesses pay a little more attention to where they want to go," Dick-Endrizzi says. "Maybe develop a relationship with brick-and-mortar restaurant owners even before they apply for a permit, so that if there's a sense that there's not support from surrounding businesses they'll look for a spot in other areas."
Sensible, but it won't help Jay Hamada, who's already spent thousands of dollars legally securing a space he'll probably have to abandon. And if he does decide to seek a new Mon.-Tue. spot, will he have to pay another $10,000 application fee? Besides, there's no guarantee that, even if JapaCurry does move to another part of downtown thickly populated with lunchtime eateries, the owners there won't pick up torches and pitchforks to drive Hamada out.