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Monday, March 8, 2010

Today's Committee Hearing on Mobile Food Vendors Left Us Encouraged

Posted By on Mon, Mar 8, 2010 at 6:01 PM

San Francisco's outdated and convoluted regulations for mobile food vendors might not be revised overnight, but if the discussion at this morning's meeting of the city's Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee was any indication, change is going to come, and city officials are energized to bring it.

The agenda item as brought forward by committee member and District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty was intended as an opening conversation on how the city can do a better job of clearing up the "regulatory tangle" that exists in the present landscape and make the bureaucratic process friendlier and less frustrating to prospective entrepreneurs.

"San Francisco is seen as America's food capital, even more than Los Angeles or New York," he argued, adding that our developing street food culture is bringing a new sense of fun and vitality.

At the heart of untangling the regulatory tangle is to decide which governmental entity is going to take the lead, and it was encouraging to hear representatives from the Department of Public Health, Rec and Park, Planning, and the police all pledge their support to working with each other and towards common goals, even as no one exactly leapt to take the principal responsibility just yet.

The floor was opened to public comments, and a number of street-food vendors had signed up to speak. Still more were in attendance, as Slow Jams proprietor Shakirah Simley demonstrated when she asked them to stand up, and a large number in the crowd took to their feet.

"We're here, and we care," she said. "Many of us took off from our 'other jobs' to be here!"

This blogger is normally quite the shy public speaker, but we felt compelled to get up and say something on behalf of the vendors we write about week in and week out that hadn't been brought up in the largely positive discussion. By and large, we said, we find the people in the street food community to be creative and civic-minded. The latter is evidenced by the numerous efforts they've made to give back to the community, from donating to local charities that feed the hungry, such as St. Anthony Foundation and SF Food Bank, to throwing parties to benefit relief organizations for Haiti and the Philippines. We support anything that can be done to ease the formalization process and to help them make their businesses safer, knowing that it can only have positive ripples throughout San Francisco.

We sensed genuine interest as Dufty kept us at the podium for a few moments. He asked if we had heard of any incidents of anyone getting seriously ill from street food here; we hadn't and luckily he hadn't either. He asked what neighborhood we thought was setting a good example; we said the Mission, though as a Sunset resident we declared our pipe dream for some action to move out west. One committee member said there'd probably be a S.W.A.T. team if street food vendors tried to set up in certain 'hoods, and we laughed at the uncomfortable truth of our home base.

Dufty also asked us what we thought of the interplay between vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants, and while we know there have been complaints out there, it gave us a moment to reflect on the restaurants, bars, galleries, and small businesses that we've seen boost their own value by finding ways to work with the carts. We've personally seen a lot more cooperation than animosity. The next step is unclear, but we hope that this meeting signified a new priority for exploring healthy and safe street food in San Francisco.

It was all good food for thought, but we wish there was someone there outside to sell us something to eat when it was all over.

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Tamara Palmer

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