Noe Valley Voice February 2013

Mobile Food at a Turning Point

Can Wiener Carve Out a Deal That Would Satisfy Trucks, Restaurants, and Eaters?

By Tim Innes

Got Milk? The owner of CookieTime, the popular food truck that operates out of the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot on 24th Street, announced in January she was looking for someone to take over her business.    Photo by Pamela Gerard

CookieTime’s time is up.

To the dismay of its many fans, owner Marina Snetkova has turned off the convection oven for the last time and put her baby-blue food truck—a fixture in the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot since November 2011—up for sale.

In a Jan. 5 Facebook post to followers, known affectionately as "Cookie Monsters," Snetkova announced she had decided to close the truck at the end of January and return to New York City.

“I love all of you," she wrote, “but I need to move back where my heart is! Thank you so much for your support!”

Snetkova, who worked on Wall Street before venturing west several years ago, said she hoped to replicate CookieTime in New York and eventually open a wine bar, a longtime dream.

Although “a number of talented pastry chefs” are interested in taking over the business, Snetkova wrote, it remained to be seen at press time whether Cookie­Time would continue to dispense cookies, muffins, coffee, and tea at 3859 24th St. and at Off the Grid events elsewhere in the city. “Hopefully there will be a smooth transition,” she told her followers.

A Roving Blade: The only other mobile business we spotted last month in Downtown Noe Valley was the SaucyJoe Sharpening Co., owned and operated by Joe Kern. Kern says his truck, here parked at Sanchez and 24th streets, visits the neighborhood on Saturday mornings during the same hours as the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.). It takes him three to four minutes to sharpen a knife, he says. “It’s real quick.”    Photo by Sally Smith 

CookieTime’s transition comes at a pivotal time for San Francisco’s mobile food industry, which has mushroomed since the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved then-District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty’s enabling legislation two years ago. But while food trucks have been welcomed in areas where workers enjoy few lunchtime options, they’ve been met with mixed feelings in neighborhoods like Noe Valley, where restaurants and takeouts abound.

Brick-and-mortar businesses, which pay thousands of dollars a month in rent, complain that it’s unfair to be forced to compete with a food truck parked across the street for $2 an hour. Having a food truck nearby can cut sales by 30 to 40 percent, restaurateurs say.

Dufty’s successor, Scott Wiener, has introduced three measures aimed at encouraging the spread of mobile food vendors while taking into account the concerns of restaurateurs and commercial property owners. Wiener’s proposed legislation would open vast new areas to food trucks and carts, while creating “no-truck zones” near restaurants. The measures would also streamline the permitting process and beef up enforcement against rogue operators.

In introducing the legislation, Wiener said, “Food trucks are small businesses that add to our diverse and innovative food scene and increase vibrancy on our streets. We should encourage the success of these businesses, while also recognizing and balancing the needs of brick-and-mortar restaurants, which have invested in our neighborhoods for so many years. It’s about striking a regulatory balance that allows all of these businesses to succeed, encourages food innovation, and supports consumer choice. By engaging stakeholders from all sides, we’re moving in that direction.”


Cafes Want Bigger Buffer Zone

Two of the reforms—allowing food trucks to operate closer to middle and high schools, and on hospital and college campuses—have broad support. The third, however, which would establish a 50-foot buffer zone around restaurants, has generated determined opposition.

On one side are the mobile vendors, who favor a 33-foot zone. On the other are the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the Building Operators and Managers Association (BOMA), who want a 100-foot zone. Wiener and his staff have been meeting with representatives of both sides in an effort to reach a consensus.

“Hopefully, all parties will come to some compromise,” said Ken Cleaveland, BOMA’s vice president for public policy. “The association would like to see a 100-foot buffer, but we may have to settle for 75 feet, [along with] a reduction in the 300-foot notice requirement, which is particularly onerous to mobile food facility applicants.”

Rob Black, the restaurant association’s executive director, said his group was concerned that a “50-foot barrier would not sufficiently address the issues that arrive when a food truck sets up in an area with dense pedestrian and transit traffic.” 

He said he hoped that an agreement could be reached that “preserves the innovation and choice provided by food trucks while balancing the needs of existing neighborhoods and commercial districts.”

Wiener “is working hard to find a compromise...that works for property owners, truck operators, and existing brick-and-mortar restaurants and businesses,” Black  said.

Pressure is on the parties to reach a deal soon because Wiener would like to bring the measures before the Land Use and Eco­nomic Development Committee, which he chairs, before the end of February.

Few ‘Meals on Wheels’ in Noe

Currently, food trucks are not permitted in residential areas and can operate only in areas zoned commercial. Because they are barred from selling within 1,500 feet of schools—picture the distance from Church Street to Castro Street—mobile vendors have virtually no curb space in “downtown Noe Valley.” At present, most trucks are concentrated in the South of Market area and in the Mission Bay, Dogpatch, and Bayview neighborhoods along the eastern edge of the city.

To determine the effects of different-sized buffers, Wiener’s staff mapped every restaurant in the city. They found that a 100-foot buffer would effectively keep food trucks from operating in any commercial district, from Noe Valley to North Beach and from the Mission to the Marina.

Still troubled is the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations, whose members worry about food trucks taking up scarce parking spaces and blocking merchants’ signs.

Robert Roddick, who heads the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association (NVMPA) and is a council vice president, said merchants are also concerned about sidewalk congestion, litter, and vendors wanting to use their bathrooms.

Roddick said those concerns, plus the fact that mobile vendors aren’t taxed to support the local Community Benefit District, led NVMPA members to vote overwhelmingly in November against allowing food trucks in the 24th Street and Church Street corridors. The district, also known as the Noe Valley Association, provides such amenities as sidewalk cleaning, hanging flower baskets, and benches in the commercial area.

“Food trucks have their place,” said Roddick, “but I don’t think we’ll be seeing them in Noe Valley.” 

That’s because the high concentration of restaurants on 24th Street between Castro and Church means that no parking space is more than 50 feet from an established eatery.

The no-truck zone would apply only to the use of public streets, not to private property like the Ministry lot, and would exclude coffee shops and grocery stores.