Could Authorities Bust the Mission's Street-Food Party? Part II: The Police

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Doug Zimmerman
Magic Curry Kart is a fixture of the new vendor scene.

The Mission's underground street-food scene is hot. Last month the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned the phenomenon, and even the LA Times' travel blog took a look. Street food has captured the imagination of city residents eager for a taste of the latest food trend with a whiff of the subversive. But while the street-food party is gaining momentum, fueled by what seem like weekly Twitter alerts about new vendors, there's a potential buzz-kill lurking: the law.

What's the likelihood that city authorities will stage a crackdown on scofflaw entrepreneurs, especially in the face of mainstream buzz? Conversations with officials from both the police and Health Department suggest that while the city doesn't currently seem to have much appetite for busts of vendors like Curtis the Crème Brulee Guy, Cookie Wag, or Amuse Bouche, the possibilities for future action - like the weekend police action that caused the Sexy Soup Lady to pack it up and move on -- are real.

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Street-food vendor Sexy Soup Lady was reportedly shut down by police on Linda Street Friday night.

Richard Lee, the city's director of Health Regulatory Programs, told SFoodie that action against unlicensed vendors will almost always come from the police. "Anytime we see or know about a violation, we report it to the police," said Lee. The Health Department has some two dozen inspectors crisscrossing the city to perform inspections of restaurants and other permitted facilities. When they notice a street vendor they suspect of being unlicensed, procedure calls for them to alert the cops. But Lee also told SFoodie that his department has been following suspected unlicensed vendors' on Twitter to determine when and where they'd be setting up for business.

Getting the proper permits for pushcart food sales can be prohibitively pricey for street vendors. The Department of Public Health requires applicants to submit for a permit to operate, a sanitation certificate, and a fire marshall application. The fee for a pushcart on private property costs $737, on top of an environmental health application fee of $298. That's easily beyond the reach of both the latest wave of sellers and of those with a history of selling tamales and other snacks to the day laborers who cluster on César Chavez and nearby streets.

In early May, Lee's department informed the police at Mission Station about vendors' plans to sell on Linda Street. Police spokesman Sergeant Wilfred Williams told SFoodie that, while he couldn't speak to any specific action officers at Mission Station took, he did say that they are aware of suspected illegal selling on Linda Street and in Dolores Park. "The permit officer was advised of the situation," Williams said. "He in turn advised the beat officers. So they are aware." Unlicensed vendors are subject to citations for an infraction - basically, a warning to leave -- to a misdemeanor, which entails a fine. Williams said circumstances (like if the vendor is a repeat offender) would determine what actions officers might take.

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Elina D. via Yelp
The Mission's Creme Brulee Cart.

Speaking before the weekend's reported action on Linda, Williams suggested that vendor activity was too sporadic and fluid for Mission Station permit officer Steve Thoma to get much of a handle on. "At this point they haven't been able to find or locate the vendors, because they're not selling on a daily basis. They might not always be in Linda Alley, they might not always be in Dolores Park. They might not always be in the Mission," Williams said.

All of this suggests that going after unlicensed vendors isn't, perhaps, a top priority for police, despite word from at least one vendor -- Amuse Bouche -- about unspecified police action in the past. What could make that change, of course, is the presence of specific complaints, either about customers congregating in a residential street or some breakout of food-borne illness.

In the case of the latter, said Richard Lee, it would trigger an immediate investigation by the disease control unit of DPH. "Then we'll get involved -- we'll go investigate," he said. That's a situation neither health officials or vendors are probably eager to see arise.

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