Many questions remain in San Francisco’s effort to regulate mobile retailers 

click to enlarge mobile retailers
  • anna latino/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • More mobile retailers, including participants in a San Francisco pop-up event in March, above, are taking wares directly to customers.
San Francisco’s effort to allow mobile retailers on its streets is taking shape, but many questions remain unanswered.

The biggest one is whether it can even work. Members of the Small Business Commission, which is leading the effort, have their doubts.

“It seems really difficult in a dense city where we already have parking and bicycle and all kinds of other issues,” said Commissioner Mark Dwight.

The proposal is thought to be the most expansive of its kind in any major city.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out here,” Dwight continued. “I don’t know if we are going to set an example or just show everyone how it doesn’t happen.”

Like food trucks, there is a growing demand to permit mobile businesses. And much like brick-and-mortar restaurants complain about an unfair playing field and a negative business impact from food vendors, retail businesses are raising similar concerns.

Mobile retail is currently prohibited on public streets, but an increasing number of these trucks started to operate anyway, such as at Castro and 18th streets. The demand prompted Small Business Commission staff to begin working on regulations in February.

Since then, there have been numerous meetings with merchant groups, including last week with the West Portal Merchants Association and today’s meeting with the Bayview Merchants Association.

Regulations are coming into focus, such as limiting allowable locations to intersections. For example, at the West Portal and 14th Avenue intersection, up to three mobile retail vendors could be allowed at the northeast and southeast corners along 14th Avenue from 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Sundays, said Christian Murdock, a business case manager with the Small Business Commission. The regulations can be more finely tailored to exclude certain types of mobile businesses, he added.

Generally, The City’s mobile retail regulations would prohibit setting up in front of businesses, limit parking to side streets of commercial corridors, prevent blocking of bike lanes, and require parking in areas with only a minimal slope and not adjacent to a first floor of a residence.

Mobile retail includes a wide variety of business types, such as banking services, dog grooming, clothing sales and shoe repair. Murdock said the regulations would not allow medical marijuana dispensaries, tobacco sales or the sales of secondhand goods like electronics.

After meeting with merchant groups, Murdock plans to discuss the proposal with the West Coast Mobile Retail Association, the trade group promoting the mobile business. Any regulation of the industry would require approval by the Board of Supervisors.

In June, the board approved mobile food truck regulations after more than two years of heated debate.

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