San Francisco street food vendors face objections, hearings before permits issued 

When the manager of a popular downtown cafe discovered that street food vendors hoped to set up shop in her neighborhood, she sent city officials letters of objection for each of about 10 proposals.

Shannon Blalack of The Plant Cafe Organic said she has nothing against such businesses, but worries they have an unfair advantage over her business.

“I love the idea,” Blalack said, “I just think that it’s potentially kind of encroaching on restaurants where we have to pay more and adhere to so many other laws.”

Blalack is one of several people who have opposed applications recently submitted to the Department of Public Works as part of its new street food permitting system. At least one person formally objected to six of the first 12 locations that were requested. The agency is currently processing 70 applications for up to seven locations each.

San Francisco Soup Co. and Toasty Melts applied for those first 12 spots, mostly downtown. So now their owners must decide whether to pay up to $1,000 to hold a public hearing or whether to simply abandon their requests to operate in certain spots.

After such a hearing, the agency would decide whether to authorize a permit at a disputed location. But until then, it will not issue vendors a permit.

“I can understand why they won’t,” said Toasty Melts owner Tiffany Lam, who first joined the  street food sensation in August 2009. “It’s just a little frustrating … but we’re trying to be as patient as we can.”

In the meantime, Lam said she is operating at Off the Grid street food events and in counties where the competition is not as fierce, while she figures out what to do with her San Francisco business.

Department of Public Works spokeswoman Gloria Chan said since the process is a new one, the first public hearing will be instructive and could possibly shape the process for future pending permits.

San Francisco Soup Co. co-owner Steve Sarver can see both sides of the situation, since he owns 12 restaurants in The City and has objected to requests from vendors to operate near them. He applauded the agency for communicating well with the applicants and objectors.

“The biggest question mark is what the judges are going to decide is direct competition,” Sarver said. Sarver said the $1,000 is not much compared to the types of fees restaurant owners have to pay.

“That’s nothing,” he said.

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Kamala Kelkar

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