Unlicensed Vendor Detained at Saturday's Street Food Festival

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Vendor "Luke" (in glasses) surrounded by police officers Saturday.
​At the San Francisco Street Food Festival Saturday, police shut down and threatened to cite a street food vendor -- an ironic turn of events for a day devoted in part to educating attendees about the difficulties of becoming a licensed food entrepreneur in this town.

First-time vendor Don't Forget Your Lunch wasn't one of the fest's approved sellers, according to co-proprietor Luke (we've changed his name to protect his identity), but showed up anyway. Luke and his sister set up at the festival entrance at 25th Street and Folsom at about 1:45 p.m. Luke described the concept of Don't Forget Your Lunch as an offering of a multi-dish meal made with local, organic, and foraged ingredients centered around a particular theme. On Saturday, Don't Forget was offering Indian breads with a choice of fillings, along with tomato chutney and chai. Luke, 28, is a student and works a couple of part-time jobs. He hoped to make additional money from street food, and said he couldn't afford what he identified as the "$1,000 permit" required to become a licensed seller in San Francisco.

Luke showed up Saturday with about 30 meals, priced at $5 each. "We put stuff on display and had a sign on a fence," he said, "but within 10 minutes a police officer approached me and asked if I had a permit. When I said no she told me that I couldn't sell my food there unless I was a registered vendor and asked me to leave the area." Luke and his sister then entered the festival grounds on Folsom, making a few sales to attendees lined up at booths or milling around. Eventually they settled on the front steps of a house opposite the Delfina booth.

Within minutes, the four police officers who'd confronted them before were surrounding them. "'Remember me?' the officer said," Luke recalled. "She said that since she had already warned me once, this time she was going to charge me with a misdemeanor and that I would have to pay a fine. She said I was hurting the event, since it was a benefit for a nonprofit trying to legitimize street foods, that I was hurting the cause. I said there were plenty of people here, that I wasn't really making any money, and that I wasn't really hurting the event. Most of the official people selling food there were high-end restaurants, people like Absinthe," he said. "I thought it was supposed to be more about street vendors."

Luke said he tried to walk away but that the officers stopped him and demanded his ID. "They took down my information, called it in to see if I had any warrants, priors, etc. (which I didn't) and they confiscated a menu I had printed, presumably because it had my Twitter address listed on it. I didn't think they had a right to take that," Luke said, "but I didn't want to say too much."

As Luke was leaving, he said, the officer told him she would remember his face and that if she ever saw him selling food again he'd be fined. "I was glad that I didn't get fined," he said, "but the experience was frustrating, discouraging, and definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was a strange feeling to be treated like a criminal for selling street food at a street food festival."

La Cocina director Caleb Zigas, an organizer of the festival, said this morning he hadn't heard about the incident, but suggested it highlighted the need for Saturday's event. "In the end I think what our event was about was to find legitimiate ways to have this conversation, to have the city and vendors talk about this and come together somewhere in the middle."

Luke said he'd like to continue Don't Forget Your Lunch, despite feeling what he described as "really tense and upset" about being detained. He said he assumed the officers confiscated his menu primarily because it listed the address of his Twitter page, and suspected they'd be following his tweets to find out when Don't Forget Your Lunch might be planning to sell again.

Two other unlicensed vendors -- the Chai Cart and Boozely's Pickles and Preserves -- were also reportedly selling near Saturday's festival. No incidents of police action with them have circulated.


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