Valerie Luu doesn’t work at a desk. Underneath a forest of skyscrapers, between the lamp posts and fire hydrants of San Francisco, Luu and others cook and serve food on the city’s streets.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Santa Cruz, Luu wanted to be her own boss, and didn’t want to go to graduate school immediately, so she decided to head to one of the world’s biggest bustling centers of diversity — San Francisco.
“I do dishes from my childhood,” she said. “So basically, I recreate dishes that I enjoyed growing up with.”
Luu runs a small pop-up restaurant — a temporary eating facility that “pops” up in a neighborhood — called Little Knock. On an April night she is grilling up street food with Katie Kwan, owner of pop-up Kitchen Sidecar, in their joint venture, Rice Paper Scissors (RPS). They are serving up pâté bánh mì buns, sweet sticky rice and tapioca drinks outside of Amoeba Music on Haight Street, in a collaborative event with Cambodian-pop group Dengue Fever. After the band finished their set, Luu and Kwan rushed to meet the after-show crowd outside with woks, grills and red stools. Amid all the food, people and music, Luu’s at home.
Start-up entrepreneurs like Luu are flocking to cities across the United States to try their hand at building small businesses in an industry that has relatively little start-up costs and is fueled by Facebook and Twitter. With a hope and a tweet, vendors like Luu and Kwan head into the city with trucks, tables and grills to make a living.
Phil Carter, a UCSC alumnus eating at Amoeba, said street food is easy to like.
“It’s something different, and it’s quick and its easy,” he said. “It supports people in the community. People like that and want that.”
Now more than ever, pop-up restaurants and food trucks are thriving. Many cater events, have a strategic route and serve unique, gourmet food. These hometown businesses, whether in a truck or behind a table, are a good example of the alternative food revolution that is occurring in the Bay Area, as well as several other major U.S. cities.
And for good reason. In 2007, the Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations, estimated that roughly 2.5 billion people eat street food every day worldwide. One in four people had visited a food truck in the previous six months, a 50 percent jump from the year before, according to an American Express Market Briefing report in July 2010. The New York Times recently wrote an article about the San Francisco Underground Market, a monthly event in which pop-ups collaborate together, and highlights this ever-growing trend.
Besides the struggles of running a small business, street food vendors face other big challenges. Food trucks and pop-ups must carry all the cooking supplies they need with them. As they are mobile businesses, they have to strategize their locations, how often they tweet, and when to collaborate.
“It’s difficult,” Luu said. “It’s made me become a perfectionist, because you need to be on your shit, and you need to know where everything is and what needs to happen before you do it.”
While Luu and Kwan collaborate for RPS, and other pop-ups work side-by-side at the San Francisco Underground Market, food trucks are also finding that it’s helpful to come together.
Many in the food truck community gathered for round two of SJ Eats: A Movable Feast on May 7, a San Jose convention-festival of 20 food trucks, live music and, according to its Facebook page, over 1,600 foodies.
An entire street in San Pedro Square was closed for the event, with trucks lining the sidewalk. It was advertised almost entirely through its online presence on Facebook.
Ryan Sebastian, owner of ice cream food truck Treatbot, helped organize the event and said most meals street vendors cook are ready to eat, have small portions and are very niche.
“Generally food trucks are small and limited, so you end up making one special thing that’s really good, and people follow you anywhere for it,” he said.
Amir Hosseini, owner of Curry Up Now, an Indian food truck also present at the event, said being online isn’t necessary, but definitely helps.
“We started off pushing Facebook and Twitter to reach out to our fan base,” he said. “We’re in a mobile industry, so our customers need to know where we are.”
He said being online helps, if only because it’s free.
“We’re on Twitter and Facebook, and we don’t spend money on advertising, because every time we post something it’s viewed 5,000 times,” he said. “Definitely most of our traffic comes from Twitter.”
Hosseini explained that at the same time, however, it’s usually one’s dish that makes one successful.
“It’s all about your product,” he said. “With food trucks at an event like this, you’ll get a lot of people who are actually foodies, who will wait in line for an hour to get good food, who are going to try a lot of different things.”
Despite the growing popularity of street food, pop-up restaurants are technically illegal. Unlike food trucks, most pop-ups do not have a business license or health permit.
Sec. 184.81 of the San Francisco Municipal Code states mobile food facilities may not operate without a permit from the health department and fire marshal. Like restaurants, food trucks and pop-ups both need to pass numerous health inspections to run legally. They are highly regulated by the city in which they operate, and to be legal they must pay over $1,000 in fees.
Cabana Dave’s Gulf Coast Catering, a Caribbean-Cajun style catering company based out of the East Bay, opened its first food truck several weeks ago. Owner and head chef David Victor said it has been fun so far.
“It’s new and exciting,” he said. “You know, everybody’s gotta eat, and it’s cool to be able to talk and interact with your customer.”
He added that he is afraid for pop-up restaurants.
“Us food trucks, we have to pass health regulations, get business permits, rent out our spaces, and pop-ups don’t,” he said. “Someday they’re going to end up hurting someone.”
Many customers don’t see the risk, however. Luu said she thinks street food is the safest food there is.
“It’s very rare to see your food being made in front of you and to look your cook in the eye — even at a restaurant you don’t really get that,” she said.
Andrew Strader, Environmental Health Services inspector of Santa Cruz County, said these risks are present but easily minimized.
“The risks associated with street food are the same as those at home,” he said. “These guys are trying to set a working kitchen up, and they have a couple hours to [do it], so they’re hustling. It kind of just depends on the individuals and how much food safety training they have, and how much emphasis that they put on that.”
While they are subject to the same legal and health regulations as any other restaurant, Luu said fines and punishments are scarce.
“I feel fortunate to live in a city where these things happen,” she said. “The city in a way kind of allows it to happen — they’re not cracking down — and customers are supportive and want it. There is a lot of underground food going down in the city, so not everyone has a permit. Not everyone is working out of a commercial kitchen. There is a precedent set that it’s OK for now, or OK until someone gets sick.”
The New York Times article reported the The San Francisco Underground Market helps pop-ups get around these regulations, since it is a club.
“The underground market seeks to encourage food entrepreneurship by helping young vendors avoid roughly $1,000 a year in fees — including those for health permits and liability insurance — required by legitimate farmer’s markets,” Patricia Leigh Brown writes in the Times story. “Here, where the food rave — call it a crave — was born, the market organizers sidestep city health inspections by operating as a private club, requiring that participants become ‘members’ and sign a disclaimer noting that food might not be prepared in a space that has been inspected.”
While street food in the Bay Area is booming, Santa Cruz has seen very little. Apart from a few Spanish ice cream carts and hot dog stands, not much exists.
Gary Willett, of Gary’s Old Fashioned Snappy Dogs, is one of the few street food vendors in Santa Cruz. He will have been at the corner of Younglove Avenue and Mission Street for five years selling hot dogs and sausages come Sept. 19. He said part of the lack of street food in Santa Cruz has to do with the city’s zoning laws.
“The cities have all different laws,” Willett said. “In Santa Cruz you have to be on industrial or residential property [to sell food on the street], whereas in San Jose you can be almost anywhere.”
Food trucks that follow the proper legislation do exist in Santa Cruz, and pop-ups can exist if they are in some sort of community event, like a farmer’s market, Strader said.
“The problem with setting up anywhere is when you set up just anywhere there’s no consideration for traffic, [or] whether they are blocking access,” Strader said.
Street food is nothing new, though. It’s a cultural phenomenon, one that has its roots in city slums, taco trucks, familiar hotdog carts in New York, and for Luu, in rural Vietnam.
“I get a lot of recipes from my grandmother, and in Vietnam it’s just a way of life,” she said. “It’s about learning about my culture in a way that’s interesting to me, it’s a way [that] I can really delve into it and speak about it.”
Monica Wong, one of the owners of Bay Area Vietnamese food truck Little Green Cyclo, said her business relates to Asia as well.
“Street food is popular in Asia,” she said. “But here we’re highly regulated, [so] it’s on a much cleaner, organic level.”
Andrew Thai, one of the volunteers at SJ Eats and a third-year at San Jose State, said there isn’t a stigma associated with street food, that anyone can jump in.
“In a restaurant you have your own table and you don’t know the person next to you. There’s a boundary there,” he said. “But on the street, everyone’s everyone and there’s nothing stopping you to talk with that person who got the same ice cream as you. It’s great to have that community.”
Hot dog vendor Willett said street food is popular because a restaurant setting isn’t necessary — there are other aspects that are more important to the dining experience.
“Cleanliness and quality food,” he said. “You can sell quality food anywhere, that’s my consensus.”
Last Saturday, Kwan and Luu got together to hold their third Rice Paper Scissors together in the Mission District. They borrowed a rickshaw from another café as a prop, as the theme was food originally cooked in central Vietnam. They served shrimp chips, sesame jellyfish salad, and a total of 25 fried quail, which customers had to reserve beforehand online. The quail were stuffed with Chinese sausage and bacon sticky rice, and sold out.
“It went really well,” Luu said. “It was hectic! We had about 300 people come through.”
Luu believes street food has room to grow in San Francisco, and the future is bright.
“New people are getting into food every day, just trying it, trying to start their own business,” Luu said. “This trust between consumer and producer is just growing.”
Treatbot ice cream truck owner Ryan Sebastian said it can be scary running a small street food business, but other vendors are there for one another.
“There is a lot of overhead, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “A truck could break down on you — that’s happened before. But it’s a very positive culture right now in San Jose. It’s a small, tight-knit community where everyone knows each other.”
Above all, street food vendors, whether serving food off a card table or a food truck counter, have a community.
“That’s probably the biggest reason why I do it — I love so many people,” Luu said. “I love interacting with people, and for once I feel like I’m in a community with people that want to be industrious, that want to be creative [and] make good food — we’re all doing it together,” she said.
“It doesn’t feel like a competition, it feels like a community.”