Sacramento Needs to Embrace Street Food

Reposting due to SactoMoFo. Original date 7/28/10. 
Updates in purple.

Here's a question for you. Why is it that the state capitol of one of the most progressive and forward thinking states in the U.S. is so backward when it comes to the hottest food trend in the country - gourmet food trucks?

The last two weeks I've gotten to enjoy the variety of food trucks and other street foods in two of the biggest street food cities in the U.S. - Portland and San Francisco. Let's start by looking a little bit at these two cities before we look at our own.

Portland has become known for its street food due to its over 400 licensed street food vendors. As I showed in my post earlier this month, even as many as 22 on one street block! It recently went head to head with New York City to claim best street food. (See referenced articles at end.) Definitely it has a lot of variety and some very well known trucks featured nationally on, a video blog for street food, and other national networks and publications. The reason there are so many is that Portland welcomes them. In an interview with, Portland Mayor Sam Adams explains that the city makes a point of welcoming street food vendors with easier permitting ordinances that still maintain integrity of health and safety concerns.

In California, both San Francisco and Los Angeles have also opened themselves up to street food after having to deal with similar city imposed obstacles that Sacramento still has. I talked to Matt Geller of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. He says that it is important to note that the State has laws governing food trucks and that municipalities can only write ordinances that concern health and safety. The Association is successful in combating these ordinances because there is no good argument that moving a vehicle every half hour or a quarter mile is helping health and safety. They are actually working on, and looking forward to, a couple of cases in Southern California to take to the California Appellate Courts. Once they successfully challenge these ordinances in the Appellate Courts then all local ordinances in the State would be struck down.

Let’s turn to Sacramento. What’s the problem here? Although no one will say outright, here are some of the arguments that seem to come up against street food. 1) Restaurants don’t want the competition outside their front door. 2) Street vendors aren’t as sanitary as restaurants. 3) Street vendors attract the ‘wrong element’.

Restaurants don't want the competition. This is an easy one. We are looking at two totally different crowds! There are the folks who want cheap, quick street food. They are looking for cheap eats that they can get to go or eat standing up or walking. The other side is the crowd that wants to sit down, take the time, socialize with a date or friends, and wants a complete meal.

If you frequent the farmers markets downtown during the week, you will see a few food vendors in the parks. They are doing a brisk business. The weekday lunch crowd loves them. Maybe you have a job where you can't get away for much of a lunch and so you run down and grab a quick bite from the street vendors and take it back to your desk. You were never going to go to a brick and mortar restaurant in the first place.

In other cities the trucks have been respectful of  restaurants by not parking too close to them, especially with the same type of food. Portland Mayor Adams says, "restaurants and other businesses have benefited from being close to food carts because as more people walk to-and-from the street vendors, the brick-and-mortar places benefited from foot traffic."

Health & Safety. Another concern is that street vendors aren't as clean. The truth is that they have to pass the same inspections as restaurants. Also consider the fact that the trucks move so they aren't stuck in one location to gather vermin. According to Multnomah County's (Portland) inspector, "carts have fewer major health code violations per inspection than restaurants do." In California, trucks are required to be housed in commissaries overnight where they are flushed out and cleaned.

Trucks are, in fact, inspected many more times a year than restaurants are. Every time they participate in a Special Event (festival, fair, etc.) they are inspected anew. In the case of Drewski's, he has been inspected 8 times in his first three months in business. Is a restaurant inspected every time they do a catered event?

There goes the neighborhood. The last of the big arguments is that street food attracts the wrong element to the area. In reality, trucks are rarely parked for more than two to four hours in any one spot. The traffic they attract are those that are interested in purchasing good food. The vendors know that they need to clean up the area before they leave or they won't be welcomed back. So basically, any traffic impact is minimal. And, as we said above, wouldn't some businesses benefit as people stroll by them to get to their favorite food truck?

Another point to be made is that most of the times the street vendors are not even on the street. Often they arrange to lease spots on private property, such as parking lots. So why should it bother the city to let them stay there if they have arranged it with the owners? The thing is that when they are on public property they are now falling under zoning laws.  In Portland you will find many street vendors grouped together in pods on empty lots. During my visit last week, I didn't see any that were on the actual street. There, Portland eased the laws again. As long as stationary mobile carts have functional wheels, an axle for towing, and are located in a commercial zone, they are considered vehicles and are not required to conform to the zoning or building code.

Interestingly, Sacramento does have a few 'hot dog' vendor style carts that are being permitted on the streets. When I talked to Ryan at Chunks, the pastrami/hot dog vendor at the corner of  8th and L, he told me that he had a permit for that specific southwest corner and he wasn't required to move after a certain amount of time. He is a different classification, though, because he is just reheating prepared foods versus cooking from fresh food stuffs. Still, it seems sort of hypocritical that the council allows some street food (carts) and not others (trucks).

Who's Cooking?
A few more points that are important to note. First is where some of these food trucks are coming from. Due to the popularity of the food networks on television and the interest in eating well, there has been a tremendous increase of people going to and graduating from culinary schools. So many, in fact, that there is a lot of competition for limited jobs at the higher end restaurants. Often chefs will think about opening their own restaurants. That takes a lot of startup money with many restaurants failing in the first year. Many chefs are now turning to food trucks to get their cooking out. For about $100,000 a chef can start a food truck, considerably less than a brick and mortar. They don't have to worry about leases, equipment, staff, liquor licenses, advertising, hours, and more. The trucks are the biggest cost. They only have to hire a couple of employees, can make their own hours, and most of the advertising is done by word of mouth and tweeting. So much easier as a way to start in the biz. Some of the more popular trucks have expanded to multiple trucks, franchising, and eventually opening up real restaurants.

Arlington, VA, September 12, 2001-- Local fire...Image via Wikipedia

Related to new chefs turning to trucks is that many already established chefs are also turning their attention to street food. Top Chef Master Ludovic Lefebvre is unveiling his new fried chicken truck in about a month. He's working with a group called Mobi Munch. I spoke with Joshua Tang, co-founder and CEO. Mobi Munch works with chefs to bring their foods to the masses via trucks. They provide the trucks, social media assistance, help with permits and licenses, as well as assisting in researching food and truck design. We talked in front of his newly launched Chairman Bao truck and he explained that his group works with the chefs to create and test their recipes and then analyze the steps involved from order to serving. This then influences the design of the truck itself so that it is laid out in the most efficient manner. It boils down to - these are high quality, gourmet trucks.

What can you do to help bring food trucks to Sacramento? First, sign the online petition created by another local blogger, Joshua Lurie-Terrell at Next, write to each one of the Sacramento City Council members. Lastly, talk up the issue with everyone. The more people who know and understand the issues, the more support we can get to have the rules relaxed. The City needs to realize that food trucks are rolling across America and they might as well embrace them.

Related Articles