San Francisco could become ground zero for mobile retail regulations 

Clothing boutiques, beauty salons, dog groomers, financial providers and art galleries are going mobile in San Francisco, and city officials are drafting regulations as they anticipate a boom similar to food trucks.

When startup hopefuls walk into City Hall about once a week seeking permits for their mobile businesses, those working the counter at the Office of Small Business, overseen by the Small Business Commission, can only shrug; no such permit exists. But that could soon change.

City officials are drafting rules to position San Francisco to become the first major U.S. city to regulate mobile retailers. But if the effort involving food trucks is any indication, it won’t be easy. That debate is ongoing amid complaints from brick-and-mortar restaurants about unfair competition.

Mobile retail is not allowed under existing laws.

“They’re explicitly prohibited, and it’s a legal gray area for anything else service-related that’s not mobile food,” said Christian Murdock, an Office of Small Business staffer, during a briefing earlier this month.

“But these folks are trying to do the right thing and come in and get their business vetted, regulated, so they can get up and running,” Murdock said.

Lower Haight resident Christina Ruiz, 32, started TopShelf Boutique, a clothing-resale business, out of a 24-foot truck in May after attempting to rent commercial space.

“After many struggles with only finding unaffordable rents, difficult landlords and hurdle after hurdle to find financing, I decided to switch gears,” Ruiz said in an email.  

Ruiz said she is involved in the talks with city officials and that it’s important to consider mobile business owners’ expenses, including insurance, parking and storage, gas, maintenance and custom paint jobs.

Small Business Commission member Mark Dwight, founder of San Francisco-based bag manufacturer Rickshaw Bagworks, said mobile retailers could avoid the battle restaurants and food trucks are facing.

“We’ve had a couple [mobile retailers] out in front of my company and it generally brings in more people,” Dwight said. “It just provided another point of interest.”

He also pointed out that in growing neighborhoods such as Dogpatch there is a dearth of banking services and that perhaps a mobile retailer could fill that void.

Small-business advocate Stephen Cornell, owner of Brownies Hardware on Polk Street, said that “there’s some good parts, there’s some bad parts” of the emerging industry, and he emphasized the need for “equality.”

“Just putting a sign on my building, I went through a lot of permits to get that. It had to be OK’d by The City, that it looked right,” Cornell said. “Is that going to happen on the side of somebody’s truck?” Mobile retail is increasing nationwide, but not as fast as food trucks. However, some see it catching up in no time.

“I think 2013 is the year of the mobile retail truck,” said Stacey Steffe, who in 2011 founded the West Coast Mobile Retail Association and currently serves as its president. The group has recently expanded nationally; it assists startups and advocates for regulations.

Part of the attraction, Steffe said, is that startup costs are as low as $25,000; a truck alone runs between $5,000 and $10,000. She said about 95 percent of those in mobile retail are women.

A draft version of the regulations is expected by the end of March. It would then be circulated to city departments – such as the Police Department, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Department of Public Works and Planning Department — for feedback.

The regulations would address where in San Francisco the trucks can operate, whether chain store trucks would be regulated differently, cost of permits and enforcement responsibilities.

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