Food Truck Impresario Takes Fight to San Jose Fire Dept.

More than 6,000 picnickers flooded History Park late last month, standing under the sweltering late-spring sun with delicately balanced paper platters laden with food coded with the region’s recombinant culinary genes.

Out in force for San Jose’s third annual Taco Fest, they walked away from nearly three-dozen trucks that traversed the spectrum. Curry Up Now’s saffron-tinged four-wheeler pushed out Indian-inspired wraps. Louisiana Territory slang its brand of Cajun-inspired bites. Rocko’s Chocolate Tacos dished up eponymous organic ice cream-packed desserts. And not to be outdone, several taco trucks served actual tacos—authentic Mexican lengua and al pastor.

The cutting-edge, yet salt-of-the-earth food scene in Silicon Valley has become a tight-knit community for vendors dubbed Moveable Feast, which can be found at its many festivals, farmers markets or lunchtime stops at numerous office parks. Ryan Sebastian, the South Bay’s leading food truck impresario, created Movable Feast a year after launching his karaoke ice-creamery on wheels Treatbot in 2010. Come July 4, he’ll once again summon his fleet of food trucks to feed revelers at the city’s annual Independence Day event in downtown San Jose, which will feature fireworks for the first time in six years.

“No doubt business is booming,” says Sebastian, 35, an affable ex-urban planner who has no shortage of opinions. He espouses grand plans for “reactivating” downtown San Jose’s tumbledown St. James Park by turning it into a pop-up mobile eatery hotspot. “People are into it—they want interesting public spaces and we offer that.”

But more aggressive enforcement efforts by the city threaten to kneecap an industry just getting its legs, Sebastian says. Just a couple of weeks after Taco Fest, he sent several strongly worded emails to the city about increasing permitting fees. The red tape, he says, defies the city’s stated objective to energize city streets and public parks.

“I don't think the fire department realizes how absolutely business unfriendly they are by giving no time for food trucks to make very expensive upgrades to their trucks and conducting zero outreach or engagement with stakeholders,” he fired off in an email to Tammy Turnipseed, an events director for the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “According to my research, there is no precedent for these actions in any cities that currently hold food truck events. I'm from this city and we do things here because we want to improve it. To pay double just to do things in San Jose is getting to be extremely painful and getting harder and harder to ignore.”

After four years in the field, Sebastian feels it’s safe to say he’s outlasted the novelty of the food truck craze and has started to think further ahead. At this point, he says, it’s less about having to jump through the hoops of permitting and parking and time constraints and more about how to change local policy to make it more welcoming to the restaurants-on-wheels enterprise. Ideally, hosting an event in San Jose won’t be so expensive that he has to gate off Moveable Feast and charge admission fees.

The regulations include the following requirements for food trucks: use only diesel generators or pay for an in-lieu fire watch; festival permits of $217 a pop; and a relatively new rule to have at least five-foot buffers on each end of food trucks at special events. Meanwhile, fire inspections—required for any special event to make sure all the right equipment is in place—are set to increase by 3 percent on July 1 to $108 an hour. Since it’s a cost-recovery program, the fees increase every year salaries, benefits and other expenses go up.

“We didn’t find out about this new rule about the space between the trucks until a few weeks before the bacon festival,” Sebastian says. “It’s one thing after another and it’s squeezing us out of the market.”

Fire officials say his criticism is a little misguided. The City Council decided on the 3-percent fee hike and the 5-foot-between trucks guideline came as a precaution against kitchen fires. Other regulations have been in place since 2008 but were not always enforced.

“Those rules are there for a reason,” says San Jose Fire Department Capt. Cleo Doss. “We can’t arbitrarily set those rules. Any regulation that comes down is either going to come from the feds, the state or the local council.”

The tab Sebastian racked up for the taco festival could have been a lot less if he made sure his trucks came in with the right generators, Doss adds. Instead, since many lacked the diesel generators required by the Santa Clara Fire Chiefs Association, Sebastian had to foot a $1,550 bill for an all-day fire watch.

“He knew this going in,” says Capt. Dave Olmos, of the SJFD fire prevention office. “He knew some of his trucks wouldn’t have the right equipment, but we said, ‘OK, we can work through this.’”

Unlike San Francisco, where the food truck movement launched a series of looser, more mobile vendor-friendly regulations, San Jose’s rules have remained relatively unchanged. Turnipseed argues that the city has done its best to welcome Sebastian’s and other food truck events, even re-interpreting the rules on occasion.

“Occasionally people come in thinking that because they’re using food trucks, that the county health and state safety rules don’t apply to them,” she says. “But if you’re handling food and it becomes part of an event, it’s considered a festival. New rules apply. The fire department has to get involved."

A trade group that campaigned for new food truck-friendly rules in Sunnyvale back in 2012, The Bay Area Mobile Food Vendors’ Association, fizzled out the following year and left business owners like Sebastian on their own to wrangle with municipalities. South Bay food truck battles, however, have not been as pitched as those in S.F., where a lack of physical space turned brick-and-mortar eateries against their mobile counterparts.

“In San Jose, there’s been much less drama because there’s a lot more room,” Sebastian admits. “There are so many parts of the city, like industrial neighborhoods, where there’s no restaurant nearby, so the food trucks are always welcomed.”

But officials in San Jose have now butted heads with Sebastian twice in the last seven months. In December he offered to team up with Christmas in the Park to help expand its epicurean offerings beyond the usual churros and funnel cake carnie fare. Emails appear to show festival organizer Jason Minsky blew him off. Sebastian went ahead and pulled all the right permits from the city anyway—or so he thought—to line up a bunch of food trucks outside the winter festival. Minsky called the cops on him, getting Sebastian’s outfit evicted from the premises on grounds that they lacked a peddler’s license.

Sebastian’s squabbles with municipal powers-that-be have so far been relegated mostly to barbed emails and the occasional aside. He plans to mobilize that into something more in the near future, though.

“I do want to lobby the city to make some changes,” says Sebastian, who grew up in Evergreen and went to high school in the East Side. “Food trucks are clearly here to stay and it’s about time we adjust the rules to make it easier to do business and hold these special events in San Jose.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

32 Comments

  1. When I worked in Palo Alto the food trucks were welcomed, especially near large office buildings. There’s no reason San Jose can’t allow them to operate without jumping through hoops. Mom and pop foodbtricks have some of the best Mexican, Vietnamese, and BBQ for very reasonable prices. Plus they’re just fun to have around.

  2. Another reason San Jose sucks, I now go to another city for their food trucks and beverages. It is a great weekly event. Sorry San Jose, just another reason the council is brain dead and greedy.

  3. This topic is fairly complicated to communicate via news article, so I thought I would provide these amazing facts:

    Fire Department-related fees for Bacon Festival at Plaza de Cesar Chavez
    $10,000 (based on Taco Festival costs)

    Fire Department-related fees for Bacon Festival if moved to San Mateo Event Center
    $0-500 (based on previous events at the Event Center)

    Cities that ALLOW gas generator-powered food truck events:
    Alameda
    Belmont
    Berkeley
    Burlingame
    Concord
    Cupertino
    Daly City
    El Cerrito
    Emeryville
    Foster City
    Hayward
    Larkspur
    Menlo Park
    Millbrae
    Pleasant Hill
    Pleasanton
    Redwood City
    Oakland
    San Francisco
    San Mateo
    Santa Clara
    South San Francisco
    Sunnyvale

    Cities that DON’T ALLOW gas generator-powered food truck events:
    San Jose

    We have worked with many talented and very bright folks at City Hall — but if concern over these policies are “misguided” then some folks at City Hall genuinely don’t understand how minute interpretations of policy can have devastating effects on small business and prevent the kind of organic growth that the City desires.

    • Ryan, it sounds like making a mountain out of a mole hill. Can you just rent a diesel generator until you get the funds to buy your own? It says business was booming. Or rent a large one for everyone to use and have them pitch in to pay for it? Hell I bet the City of San Jose has one that you can rent and maybe they can set it up for free.

      As far as the 5 foot rule….who cares. It is five feet.

      From some one who isn’t in the business or around food trucks. Just my thoughts. Oh by the way Kona Ice has trailers that run off electricity (charged battery banks I think).

      http://www.dahlsequipment.com/rentalrates/specs/2415.htm

      • Thank you for your reply. A lot of this is technical and is difficult to explain via short form journalism. The reality is the cost of renting diesel generators is steep. We expect to pay around $7,000 in City labor for setting up their “free” generators at our upcoming 2-day Bacon Festival. You can rent a diesel generator at Dahls for a reasonable price, but the real cost is in the labor set up and cable rentals. These hugely expensive costs are unique to San Jose and make the City a place to avoid for Special Events.

        Regarding the five foot rule, that was a compromise the Fire Department offered after telling us that we needed 10 feet between each truck only a month before our festival (we couldn’t fit at Plaza Park under those rules). While we appreciate the gesture, our concern is that this new rule would force us to move our events out of places like Downtown San Jose, because the significant increase in required space.

        Finally, batteries are an interesting concept and we have looked at them closely. They can work for dessert trucks like Kona Ice, which draw less power. For traditional food trucks who serve full meals, the technology simply isn’t there yet at an accessible price point.

    • Our mayor, and his voting block on the council, find themselves at the wrong end of many other issues these listed cities have resolved. This mayor, and his voting block, are obstinate and stubborn to the point of being blind to what is reasonable and logical. Sam Liccardo, and certain other council members, love pushing the slogan that they want the City of San Jose to “move at the speed of business”, but they do nothing but get in the way of business. Good luck to your moveable feasts. I have attended and love them, but I would be just as happy going to another surrounding city for the feasts. I imagine something in the City of Santa Clara, around their new stadium, would be very successful.

      • Thanks for the note. We started our new event in Santa Clara just this past Wednesday at Mission College and it was a great success. Our fire department bill from the City of Santa Clara — $0.

        • That is great to hear, Ryan. Being a former business owner myself in SJ, I understand what you are up against. Just a thought, and you might have done this already, but ask each of the candidates running for mayor or city council what they will do to fix these problems when/if they are elected. That is where these arbitrary and archaic rules and fees are generated. No doubt that politics are a huge part of their decisions. The line workers at the fire department and police department unfortunately have to be the bad guys for the political decisions, which the FD and PD workers probably think are silly too. Most of those on the city council, and the mayor, have a little knowledge, and a lot of power, which leads to these poor decisions. An example is LIccardo, and his wacky proposals and lip service for the police department if he is elected. They need to find good experts in a given field, and get their input, then get out of the way. Good luck to your future, they are very fun events and the food is fantastic, and a great family oriented event.

        • All for the movable feasts , Absoltuely ! But stop with the Misinformation already . SJFD neither Bills for service or collects Fees , Period . Your Beef is with the Mayor and Clown Court called City Council . THEY set the regulations , SJFD can only enforce what is handed down

          • Such bs. The uniform/ Local 230 folks look after themselves and keep the opportunities for “Fire Watch” open for the 3 hour minimum pay at these events. Shame on Fire Prevention for being selfish. Shame on the City Managers office for letting San Jo Fire do whatever they damn well please. Look at the Grand Prix and see how over regulated and over billed that was by the Fire Marshal. No wonder San JOakland sucks.

  4. I’m sure the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce is too busy to help out a little bit here.. You know, since helping small businesses is kind of their mission and all.. Maybe too much of their time is being devoted to getting Liccardo elected?

    I think the real issue here is someone at city hall saw an opportunity to ride the financial coat tails of this growing enterprise and disguise it as a “safety” measure.

    On a serious note, if a fire did break out in one of these trucks and it couldn’t be easily contained, the patrons and proprietors could be in serious trouble if SJFD response is impacted by another fire or medical event occurring in the station’s zone.

  5. Since the City Council is (mostly) responsible here, I can only say: Elections have consequences!

    When you elect leaders that are always promoting yet another “business tax” to pay for their voter-enticing programs… when you elect leaders that believe it’s the role of big government to restrict and regulate everything in life so as to protect you from every conceivable harm, well SJ voters, this is what you get. You get a hyper-regulated, over-taxed, unnecessarily expensive environment that drives business away and generally makes life miserable.

    Get this through your heads –> There is no (NO!) such thing as a business tax or fee. Period. Businesses must recoup those costs by passing them on to the only source or revenue they have: the customer. You!

    • No staff member should opine on food truck regulation and elected official should vote on the issue unless they have seen the movie “Chef”.

    • The problem is no one puts their stance on regulating food trucks or RC boat projectiles in their platform. It’s not a big enough issue and it’s impossible to know where they stand until it comes to a vote.

  6. Perfect. Blame the “Fire Department”. Now some misguided Almaden and Willow Glen 1%ers will find another reason for “Pension Reform”. The Fire Department is the enforcement arm, not the decision maker.

    • On the other hand, a more cynical observer might see it as just another example of our city council kowtowing to the interests of IAFF Local 230 and it’s members. After all, the more administrative duties that are assigned to the fire department, the more fire”fighters” we “need” and the greater negotiating power they will have.
      As if an average pension of $104,288 isn’t enough.

      • Again, back up your numbers. You are sadly mistaken and, no, the line companies do not inspect food trucks. Nice try, but “off the top of your head” numbers got us in this mess in the first place. “$680 million pension deficit”!!…BS.

          • PLEASE ! Like any number this Mayor or City throws out can be trusted to be accurate ? already forgotten about the $650 Million dollar pension Lie?

          • Sorry, disgusted. The !AAF Local 230 website links it’s own members directly to this very document- presumably so they can get accurate information about their lottery jackpots- er, I mean pension payments.

      • Don’t know if you have been paying any attention at all over the last 6-8 years but anyone who thinks the City Council is “kowtowing” to Local 230’s interests on any matter either has been drinking way too much City Hall kook-aid or has their head so far up a hole that they really have no business weighing in on the subject.

        Most “administrative” duties have been handled by a small staff of civilians who are paid far less than the fire fighters who used to do the same thing. It is part of the City’s efforts to keep you safer while cutting costs…

        Your pension cost comment certainly isn’t bolstered by your argument either. for $140k you should be demanding that the individual do more work so as to earn their retirement…but you didn’t.

        • No need to resort to crude remarks Weed. I think I’ve got every right to weigh in on the subject. I know the unions spend a lot of money squashing my opinion at the polls, but so far at least we civilians are still allowed to speak our minds.
          How about $1550/day for a “fire watch”? Is this also done by your “small staff of civilians”?
          And what’s this $140k you mentioned? Where did that come from?

          • Please try to follow your own train of thought – you mentioned something about administrative duties and now want to talk about “fire-watches” that it makes sense would be performed by “fire fighters?”

            Sorry, transposed the 4 and 0 ($104k)

            What is crude? Did you assume I meant something I didn’t say?

            Others have already tried to educate on this matter but it apparently hasn’t sunk in yet: SJFD doesn’t set the fee’s they are mandated to charge- fees which are arrived at by the number crunchers at City Hall and approved by the elected heroes on the council (majority anti-public union “heroes”).

            What opinion of yours (locally) was squashed by union money? Measure V? W? B? Reed? Reed’s future successor? the Council person representing your neighborhood? Library Taxes?

        • Such bs. The uniform/ Local 230 folks look after themselves and keep the opportunities for “Fire Watch” open for the 3 hour minimum pay at these events. Shame on Fire Prevention for being selfish. Shame on the City Managers office for letting San Jo Fire do whatever they damn well please. Look at the Grand Prix and see how over regulated and over billed that was by the Fire Marshal. No wonder San JOakland sucks.

          • What is wrong with the 3 hour minimum? “…over billing…” that sounds criminal any investigation into that allegation? Sounds serious and needs to be looked into if there is really something to it.

            Grand Prix? that is one of Chuck Reed’s finest fiascos…. he (there RDA) got a lot of paving and “beautification” done in the DTSJ right before he pulled the plug. The Event owners dictated most if not all of the “regulation” for that event

  7. I have always wondered why Moveable Feast does not supply power for the trucks at big (5+ truck gatherings) They could easily tow a bigger generator that could be away from the main area and run power to each truck on a temporary basis. This way there would be less generator noise, and plenty of power for all the food trucks. I would also like to see at least a hand sanitizing station for the public when there is a huge truck gathering.

  8. Diesel generators are no more fire safe than a gas generator and both are perfectly safe if more than 12″ from any flammable material. That requirement is ridiculous and is in place solely to fleece event producers.

  9. Gee I’m really sorry that the “Moveable Feast” people are treated so poorly by the City of San Jose. If you think that you have it so bad, you should consider the lousy way they treat their own employees. If you want to be treated well then you might want to change your stated “occupation” from food vendor to “real estate developer,” or better yet pretend to be a newspaper like the “MercuryNews” then you will get all sorts of fees waived.

    Seriously SJ treats plenty of people poorly and the reality is you are in pretty good company. Take your business elsewhere… Netflix did, Apple did… many others have and they are doing pretty well. Heck, everyone needs to eat… you would do much better feeding the masses in locales where you are less likely to be robbed!

  10. The SJ mayor and council waste a lot of time on BS stuff, while downtown descends into Skid Row. But we have empty bike lanes. Thanks again Bike Boy Sam.