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Monday, September 28, 2009

Former Golden Gate Park Cart-Food Vendor Describes the Challenges

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 2:10 PM

click to enlarge Happy Belly started three years ago with four carts; it ended in June with two. - KSBUEHLER/FLICKR
  • ksbuehler/Flickr
  • Happy Belly started three years ago with four carts; it ended in June with two.
Interested in submitting a proposal to sell food in Golden Gate Park? First, hurry -- proposals are due October 15. Second, hear what the guy who held the contract for the past three years has to say about the experience.

In July 2006, Happy Belly began selling food from four carts in the park under a three-year contract. In June of this year, Happy Belly packed up its two remaining carts and quietly folded. Today, Happy Belly owner Dennis Lee is now chef and co-partner of Namu, the Inner Richmond restaurant that offers Asian street food at the Thursday Ferry Plaza market under the name Namu Street Food. His advice to hopeful food vendors in Golden Gate Park?

"I would say just realize this is not a normal landlord," Lee told SFoodie, referring to Rec and Park. "It's like going into business with the DMV." The chef described a litany of frustrations he experienced with the city department, from limiting the kind of signage the Happy Belly carts could display to reluctance to intervene when hostile groundskeepers turned the sprinklers on in what Lee called acts of harassment. "They were extremely unresponsive and inflexible, and just generally unreasonable."

Lee was quick to say that some Rec and Park personnel had changed, and -- as the July call for proposals to sell food in city parks shows - the city seems to be taking a more open-arms approach to food vendors overall. But he said that, when he and his partners launched Happy Belly, they were inexperienced, overly optimistic about reaching certain sales levels, based in part on the city's figures for park traffic. "We were naïve," Lee said. "We sort of gave the city an aggressive business plan, and started out selling all kinds of really awesome food. What we found out pretty much right away is that the numbers were way off." Lee thinks Rec and Park must have known that Happy Belly's numbers were unachievable. "It's disconcerting that they knowing let us get into a contract that they knew we wouldn't be able to sustain," he said. "I had to complain, and send several letters and e-mails before they made an adjustment to the contract."

But the experience wasn't all negative, and Lee said he's far from bitter about it - he called it a stepping stone to restaurant success. "We got a lot of good PR out of it, but it's really difficult not to be backed by your landlord. The Rec and Park people would regularly e-mail complaints that they had personally, kind of telling us how to run our business. They'd say, 'You should change your pricing,' or, 'Why don't you offer this or that,' without being sensitive about what it takes to provide those things."

SFoodie is waiting for a call back from a Rec and Park spokesperson about the updated pushcart RFP for Golden Gate Park.

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