Street vendors stir food debate in Castro district 

Michael Lind and his wife, Kara, used to sell their gourmet cupcakes out of a truck in the Castro district — until local merchants complained about their “unfair” business practices.

Street food has long been popular in pockets of San Francisco, particularly the Mission district, where pedestrians like to devour hot dogs and tamales as they traverse the nightlife scene. The mobile food vendor movement grew during the recession, when entrepreneurs and existing restaurants were looking to make money from low-risk ventures.

The movement is now spilling over into the Castro, building tension among existing merchants who say the newcomers are creating unfair competition.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” said Lind, who co-owns Kara’s Cupcakes in the Marina district. “There is a finite amount of time you can sell without brick-and-mortar vendors protesting.”

In addition to paying rent, established businesses are required to follow strict rules like the minimum wage ordinance, the paid sick leave ordinance and mandatory medical insurance for employees, said Stephen Adams, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro.

“They skirt a lot of those,” Adams said. “If we have to play by the rules, they should as well.”
Another major complaint: The mobile food vendors are not paying the same taxes and are often operating without permits, Adams said.

Lind admitted they never obtained a permit to sell their cupcakes in the Castro, but that was only because the permitting process was too onerous.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty has called for a community hearing March 8 on the issue later this month.

Many street vendors are just an offshoot of an existing restaurant. The problem is they don’t know where to go and how to get permission from The City to operate small food carts, Dufty said.

What he now wants to do is to make sure The City creates guidelines ensuring that these businesses know the rules and play by them.

“There is a push-pull. I have people that love carts and want to see more, and I have people who view them as a blight on the neighborhood or unfair competition,” said Dufty, who represents the Castro. “But the other factor is the consumer; we need to make sure that the service is healthy and effective.”

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Erin Sherbert

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