I have been reading articles often about new food carts appearing in San Francisco and exciting people and getting into trouble. Illegal food carts are common in some neighborhoods, such as Mission, and the locals patronize them against all official actions. The new food carts are better in standards and quality. The items sold are more sophisticated such as cream brulee, etc. and the vendors resort to advanced techniques such as using twitter to stay in touch with the customers. Nevertheless, they do get caught by the police which has been reluctant to fine but obligated to warn. Food carting is a trend that is not going to leave San Francisco and that makes me curious of the City’s reaction. The popularity of food carts has many advantages but the City will probably continue to push them out of business because the proliferation of carting will hurt the established restaurant business.
I don’t really know the history of food carting but should not be too difficult to imagine. Food is an item that is consumed daily and at some point individuals, in probably all cultures, resorted to selling food in some ways. Naturally, some of this sales efforts became mobile and a small mobile device became one way of merchandising the food. The right or wrongs of food carting are similar to any other food business practice as far as health, handling of the food, customer service and so on. Carts by nature are small and the food items have to be portable. The cost of items can be less because the vendor does not have much cost built into the practice. The cart is a mobile unit. The merchandise is acquired and food carter operates. The idea is simple and works worldwide. Do the big cities need such ways of merchandising? Maybe and maybe not. The new food carts are however here in San Francisco and though not many in numbers do get some healthy attention from the public and the media.
The food carts are small units that can be pushed or otherwise moved by one person. The operators of the recent cards are young and enterprising. They are not the traditional lower-lower class individuals seeking a source of income. The new operators dress as professionals and really enjoy what they do. The food that is sold is not the traditional source of income by the transaction. The food is a source of great fun. The traditional food cart operator has 95% motivation to operate for income and 5% for independence or some other reason. The new operators are 80% in pursuit of fun and fulfillment from the operation and 15% is income and 5% could be rebellion. If anywhere operating food carts could be a form of public rebellion, San Francisco would be on the list. The new food operators enjoy and like what they do too much. This attracts people who join the enthusiasm. That is not the traditional food carting but is traditional restaurant spirit. The food cart operators and the public enjoy the operations not only because of the food deal but also because of the personal exchanges.
The City of San Francisco has been watching. The media reports details by inspectors from Department of Health, officers of SFPD, and even interfering neighbors. The new food carting does get a solemn reaction from the City. A typical license for such vendor costs about $1000 month which is enormous considering most vendors work part-time and only for a few hours. The City excuses are typical. The City does not have as big a public campaign against the traditional food carters, in comparison, maybe because what is sold is ethnic food and has a small minority client base. What could be a big deal about the new food carting? Food carters have to maintain health standards which can be done. They have to register with the city which can be done. They have to operate safely which can be done. They have to report income for taxes which can be done. The requirements can be met. Why such high prices for a license to operate a tiny food cart? What is the big deal about appearance of little food carts?
The cart is a way to transport food of various sorts to many locations. Desserts, soups, sandwiches, sausages, and many more food items can be hauled in a food cart to where most marketable. How would this be of trouble to anyone besides the obvious excuses? The new food carts are small, fashionable, well-priced, and good in quality. They are very mobile. They bring fun to local residents for not much to spend. The operators enjoy what they do and are not really desperate to operate carts as the last resort for income. The practice is by choice for personal fulfillment rather than desperation. That changes the culture and atmosphere of the whole practice. This attracts people. The economic times are difficult now but even if they get better food carts bring joy to people who shop them. Food is not the only thing available. The experience the new food carts bring is what restaurants have been traditionally selling. People visit restaurants not just to eat and be fed. They enjoy the atmosphere, the culture and the experience of visiting a restaurant.
Restaurants are rigid establishments. Once a restaurant has been set up, a great deal cannot be changed. The location and parking is fixed. The hours are fixed. The layout, the tables, the lighting and even the food menu are fixed. Everything has to be figured out and well put together to make a successful restaurant. The violation of these rules can be a big threat to the future of the restaurant. That is probably what is behind the City’s reaction to the new food carts. The restaurants join political lobbies who watch for their interests. In a large city such as San Francisco, there are thousands of such restaurants which brings a great deal of money for the owners, the City and the lobby watching for their interests. Any serious threat will have to be dealt with for a great deal of money is at stake. Food carts maybe small but are very versatile. Restaurants are not. If the new food carting becomes common practice and cheap to operate, the food carts will appear everywhere. The cost of being an entrepreneur in food business goes down and a charming personality guarantees a whole day’s sales everyday. The food carts can converge on any spot where many people are expected. This is very bad for restaurants that are also built on location to benefit such proximities. The more food carts, the more varieties of foods can be around. Many patrons may opt for the entertainment and variety of the food cart rows versus the established restaurants. The restaurants can be hurt dramatically.
Restaurants will still be visited for celebrations, special occasions, events and many other reasons. Casual customers, however, find a very strong alternative in the food carts instead of the restaurant visits. Food carts can follow farmer’s markets and other city events. They can appear in multiple locations each day making the most of the available public. In short, the food carts can do well in a city such as San Francisco and their numbers will climb overnight. Everything about their practices can be very legitimate and they can stay in business strong. The restaurant lobby will take a huge blow for its clients. Restaurants cannot compete unless they put out their own food carts. That is not unusual. Many restaurants offer simple foods of the restaurant’s quality at farmer’s markets, food events and similar venues. Some restaurants have food trucks similar to the old tacomobiles. Food carts are much harder and less profitable to operate than an established restaurant. Farmer’s markets have been getting bigger and appearing on more days citywide. They are becoming true farmer’s markets versus the commercial replica and everyone shops them in some frequency. Food carts can have a similar future. That means a percentage of restaurant sales will be automatically lost daily to the food carts.
A city of San Francisco size can have several thousand food carts that are licensed, reputable and well-liked. They bring nothing to the city coffers and they hurt the established restaurant practice. They attract citizens as flies do and in time will provide solid social hour by just being around. They can bring excellent food to the locals. They can compete with the lowest prices. They can bring tourists around in droves. They add to the city’s food diversity and popularity. Food carts can do a lot for a big city of San Francisco size and its food-minded residents. They are just bad for some established restaurants. The future will tell what becomes of the food carting. They can influence the city life if the City stops stonewalling them. This has always been the San Francisco spirit. The City belongs to the rich.