Street Food Provides Economic Freedom: Is Success Just a Tweet Away?


“For folks who have cooked their whole lives, taking business into their own hands with their family by their sides, is a huge risk. But it provides potentially huge freedom,” said Caleb Zigas, director of San Francisco’s La Cocina culinary incubator summarizing the second National Street Food Conference at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

The conference, held August 21-22, united street food entrepreneurs and mobile vending policy makers from around the country to share experiences and insights around trends, marketing, and money. Conversations about freedom, daring, and risk wove throughout each session. 

“There’s a transition from street food being something you had to seek out,” said Zigas. “In a lot of ways it’s a trend and vendors are easier to find. Now they’re ‘cartepreneurs.” Communications and urban planning consultant Lizzy Caston said, “Street food changes lives.” With a pulse on the Portland and New Orleans food truck scenes, she observed, “It’s integral to communities and keeping people in the black. Allowing trucks is an efficient way for cities to put economic development funds to work.”

With start-up expenses in the many thousands in San Francisco (that’s just for city application fees) and differing laws per city and per county (making the business expansion Orwellian), the launch into street food can be onerous. Getting permitted is often the major challenge of starting up. “What we’re seeing in cities today reflects the way things used to be,” said author Robb Walsh. He pointed out it was Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle that generated an outcry about sanitation, leading to “a huge wave of legislation that put into effect the health codes that began to regulate street food between 1907-1910.”

Particularly for struggling immigrants, going legit is goal number one. Maria de la Luz Vazquez of Chaac Mool and Lucero Munoz Arrellano of Lucero’s Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs experienced freedom in getting permitted, with guidance from La Cocina. They strive to educate those vending via strollers on street in San Francisco’s Mission District on the ease and thrill of overcoming the fear of being busted by the cops by operating with permits.

Gail Lillian’s frustration filled the room as we experienced her journey calling precinct after precinct to confirm her chosen Liba Falafel locations would comply, only to learn that street vending rules are less clear than a cup of horchata. The last straw? Hearing she could not land a location due to competitor proximity. She now focuses more on East Bay locations rather than San Francisco, as that area attempts to become more mobile business-friendly.

“Creative class refugees,” the new cartepreneurs

“I think the family business model is very effective for lower income families,” said Zigas.  “My perception of a lot of the new wave is they are ‘creative class refugees’ who are entering this space because their jobs no longer exist. Compared to a job making $80-100K and now you’re diving in to manage a food truck, it’s going to be difficult to make even $50K. How long will those people last?”

Answers arose in a panel moderated by Baylen Linnekin, a long-time street food advocate who runs Keep Food Legal, in Washington, D.C. “We were born out of necessity,” said Lisa Wood of Portland food truck Big Ass Sandwiches, as her career in radio and music faded away.  They took nine months to get everything together. “We knew the food cost in detail before we made anything or went forward,” said her husband and chef Brian, “Yet it was trial by fire, despite the planning, serving 70 customers on day one.”

Mobile food truck formulas sound very familiar

Every entrepreneur, whether “creative class” or not, echoed that running a street food operation is not “easy” or “fun” but a 12+ hour a day proposition. Interestingly, successful vendors follow similar practices common to principles for “good business:”

  1. Build community: Matt Cohen helps vendors start street food businesses and makes it easy for customers to find them. His Off the Grid in San Francisco clusters food trucks on a consistent schedule in several locations. The spirit of competing trucks energizes the scene. “The sum is greater than the parts,” he said. “The customers are likely to go to many of the carts. They enjoy the choice and variety.” In Portland, Wood finds “even for solo eaters it’s a cool way of eating, to get bits of food from each place.”
  2. Location, Location, Location: The Portland scene reinforces this time-honored aphorism. Just three square miles downtown has over 600 street food vendors, though many are closing “It’s a 50 / 50 split of not enough planning and experience,” said Brian Wood.
  3. Make It a Good Experience: “With the food being a certain quality they’re going to come back,” Lisa Wood smiled about her sandwiches. In addition to providing an array of house-made condiments, Lillian makes her falafel experience fun, playing 80s music.
  4. Keep It Simple: Cupcake Crumb Bakery in Denver recommended vendors narrow down to a focused product line. Cohen advises, “Even if your products highlight seasonality, be consistent initially so new customers know what they’re getting.” Off the Grid also works hard to keep the prices the same across all the markets.
  5. Be Transparent: “People really love when you’re willing to be completely honest,” said Lisa Wood about her sandwiches. “They are starting to realize higher quality, local food costs more.” “My job is to educate,” said Henderson, who loves seeing people’s shock at Skillet Street Food’s $14 burger price. “People need to know that all natural burgers don’t cost $2.” He tells them why.
  6. Master the Media: “Twitter and Facebook are great for word-of-mouth since people share without changing your message or voice,” said Lisa Wood. In D.C., Twitter plays a critical role. “You can’t park a food truck unless there’s already a line,” Linnekin explained. “This is based on an old ice cream truck rule.” A line forms after Twitter and Facebook posts, after which the truck (or “gastromobile”) arrives.
  7. The various vendors use social media and email in similar ways, honed over time:

The group railed against Deal of the Day services, of which Big Ass Sandwiches had a catastrophic experience. “Everything you sell should make money. There’s no such thing as a loss leader. Make money every time,” said Henderson.

Is Street Food Here to Stay?

“There is a need for street food, not only where good, fast food can fill a food desert void, as in New Orleans,” said Caston. Street food also creates an “eyes on the street” effect, helping reduce crime in areas that might otherwise be sparsely populated.

Walsh observed that restaurant sanitation laws ironically drove a boom in Texas barbecue trucks. “The health departments want grease traps and things that don’t make sense,” he said. He finds many “now putting BBQ pits in the mobile food trucks,” essentially saving old-fashioned, wood barbecues. It is also a return to the past, much like urban farming, Caston pointed out.

Is street food is indeed a trend? All agreed on why it is so popular–the direct contact with owner/chefs, the ability to see food being made, the communal experience, and often amazing food. I’ve been to many brick-and-mortar restaurants that provide this experience, with communal tables, high traffic locations, a buzz (often loud), and food for which people line up. Great customer experience is the key to business success.

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