A Future for Food Trucks in Berkeley?

By Nancy Lam

For a college student on a budget, cheap and convenient food is a staple and often a must. With never enough time, our options for where to eat are often restricted to venues close to campus. The two most familiar food trucks are the taco truck and Desi dog on Bancroft and Telegraph.  But if one wants to look for more food truck options, there is not a lot to offer in Berkeley. One would think the constant crowds of students would attract many food vendors touting convenience and quick bites.  However, Berkeley has not lived up to its reputation as being receptive to all things.  San Francisco and Emeryville are well known for being centers for food trucks, so why do Berkeley students and residents  have less access to them?

Street food in America is not new, but the astounding growth of new, unique and even organic food trucks are astonishing.  The convenience and choices packaged in a truck that can come to you has sparked much interest. They are sprouting up all over in places like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles; however, local regulations make setting up food trucks in Berkeley more difficult. Despite these difficulties, there are a few local vendors still available in Berkeley.

Skylite Snowball is one such food truck, started in Berkeley by resident Katie Baum, who brings Baltimore style snowballs with a Berkeley taste. Launched just over Labor Day weekend, Katie is already building a following via Twitter and Facebook. Living in Berkeley for the past 13 years has instilled in her the desire to keep her syrups handmade, fresh, natural and local. Handmade syrups made with local ingredients are much more expensive, labor-intensive and difficult to create, but Katie feels that they are more special and feels better about putting them out there for the consumers. Even Katie has to admit that Berkeley is a hard place to do business in, but she remains committed to keeping Skylite Snowballs based in the East Bay rather than San Francisco.

Flacos, another Berkeley food vendor, brings organic, vegetarian and vegan Mexican food to crowds. They have worked around some of the difficult Berkeley food vending regulations by utilizing Berkeley farmers markets. With steady and growing support, Flacos has even transitioned to opening a restaurant on Adeline Street in Berkeley. Flacos’s founder Antonio has watched his business grow from one stall at the Berkeley farmers market to three. Even after opening a restaurant to feed his growing fans, he envisions Flacos becoming a global brand as big as McDonalds.

Flacos Taquito Full Plate bought at the Thursday North Berkeley Farmers Market

Antonio wants to change how food businesses are run by setting a good example. Antonio uses compostable utensils and containers, biodegradable trash bags, and over 80% of his ingredients are guaranteed to be bought from local farmers markets. Antonio also provides his employees with rights and benefits.

Flacos has had some limited exposure on campus. But with fewer opportunities available in Berkeley, Flacos is now working on expanding to San Francisco, the East Bay and Marin, then to the East Coast and, eventually, globally.

With food trucks launching and expanding their businesses, companies have sprung up to address the growing demand for assistance. Mobi Munch is “the nation’s first mobile food service infrastructure company and online marketing channel dedicated to providing established chefs and restaurateurs an integrated online and offline platform for launching innovative restaurant concepts aboard state-of-the-art food trucks.”

Mobi munch helps established chefs with food concepts to launch their ideas to feed the masses and start their own home-grown food trucks such as Chairman Bao in San Francisco.

Tammie Chi of Mobi Munch is a CAL alum and would love to bring Chairman Bao and other food trucks to the UC Berkeley campus, but has explained how the legal landscape makes it difficult. Only a few trucks are allowed permits in the city every couple years and despite submitting an application in hopes of eventually obtaining one, Chairman Bao has yet to receive a permit. Other food trucks in Berkeley are no stranger to the complications involved in obtaining a permit, the popular Cupkates has also had difficulties.

Meanwhile, food trucks have been expanding exponentially and despite rumbles of dissent from mortar restaurants about food trucks in places such as Emeryville,   Tammie sees another side. Ray Villaman, one of the founders of Mobi Munch and current president of the Tahoe Restaurant Group, actually works with restaurants to help them their own food trucks or work together with local food trucks so that both trucks and restaurants benefit.

According to Tammie, restaurants have called Mobi Munch to invite food trucks to park outside their businesses because they help draw in new customers. Places such as bars generate new customers for both the bar and the trucks; crowds can come for the food truck then grab a drink and those in the bar can stop by the trucks.

Within the growing food truck trend, there has been another consistent trend to emphasize the organic and natural foods offered by some of them. Tammie speaks of organics’ huge selling point and how Chairman Bao is “proud to say that they get their meat fresh from Golden Gate Meat everyday, and ingredients from farmers markets,” even if the cost is not cheap.

Will more sustainable, local vendors become available to students in the future? Will food vendors that go national remain sustainable? Will the competition that sustainable food trucks pose to Berkeley restaurants make restaurants become more sustainable? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, there is all the incentive to go out and visit more food trucks, even if they are not necessarily plentiful in Berkeley. As for myself, I see a date with another food truck in the near future.

Nancy Lam is a 3rd year Interdisciplinary Studies Major at UC Berkeley. She is a Bay-Area native who loves cheap, good food, blue skies and the smell of fresh breads.

Interviews with: Katie Baum of Skylite Snowball, Antonio Magana of Flacos, Tammie Chi of MobiMunch

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