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.”