Food Bikes

The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) has been delighted to host Berkeley Food Institute summer fellow John Romankiewicz, who is looking at the barriers to entering the mobile food business, with a particular focus on food bikes! What’s a food bike you ask? It’s a low-footprint, low-capital alternative to a food truck. If you’ve ever traveled around Asia or Latin America, you know that most “street food” is peddled by cart or bicycle as opposed to food trucks. Some examples of local food businesses getting around the East Bay by bicycle include Bicycle Coffee, El Taco Bike, and Curbside Creamery (left to right, below).


bicycle coffee.jpg


Mobile food and “pop-ups” are becoming increasingly attractive avenues for many food entrepreneurs, especially in the Bay Area. There are lower startup costs (and usually lower risk) than a brick and mortar business. Additionally, in recent years, there has been an explosion in the amount of outdoor community events, markets, and private pop-up events that are taking place and offer venues for selling food. When embarking on a new mobile food business, entrepreneurs need to understand the various legal parameters surrounding business licenses, zoning, and environmental health.


With respect to zoning for mobile food, Oakland had one of the oldest mobile food programs in the country, with a pilot program for pushcarts dating back to 2001. However, progress has been limited since then (there were a couple food “pods” for food trucks introduced in 2011), and the community has been calling for a more comprehensive mobile food program. The City of Oakland is finally responding, and the Planning Department is spearheading an effort to give Oakland a comprehensive plan for food vending, including food trucks, food carts, pop-up tents, and food pods. The department has issued this agenda report as briefing material for the months ahead which involve community workshops (August) and hearings with the planning commission (September), economic development council (October), and city council (November/December). More information will be released through this link in the coming weeks.


At a recent community informational meeting at Oakland City Hall on July 14, one food truck vendor (Kenny’s Heart & Soul) expressed how sorely the plan is needed: he is an Oakland resident, who started his business on loans from Oakland banks, but only 2 of the 50 locations he sells in per month are actually in Oakland because that is all that is permitted under current zoning provisions. Many Latino food truck and pushcart vendors from East Oakland were in attendance, and all stood up in unison supporting the need for a comprehensive plan (see lower right photo). Shelly Garza, of the local Oakland commissary kitchen La Placita, said: “We have been at the forefront of getting this to become a permanent ordinance...Now, 14 years later...Oakland needs an inclusive ordinance [for mobile food].”



It was emphasized by many stakeholders that enforcement for the zoning of food vendors needs to improve, but the council noted that new enforcement plans should be realistic and should not rely on police but could potentially rely on parking ticket agents. The agenda report released by the city highlighted the following goals for a new program on mobile food:


  • Meet the clear demand for additional food vending areas in Oakland, outside of the existing program areas;

  • Promote community economic development by fostering the creation of new living-wage jobs and local business ownership opportunities;

  • Address problems with the existing food vending regulations and programs;

  • Identify opportunities for greater coordination/information sharing across City/County departments that deal with food vendors; and

  • Strive to ensure greater access to healthy, affordable food in many underserved Oakland neighborhoods.


SELC is watching these changes carefully.

This summer John is also helping us add a more detailed section on mobile food to SELC’s Legal Eats guide, so that entrepreneurs can understand the various legal parameters surrounding business licenses, zoning, and environmental health. Check back here or on our Food Resources page this fall for the updated version of the guide!

With hopes of promoting living-wage jobs, local business opportunities, and greater access to healthy, affordable food, SELC is considering proposing possible changes to various local and state laws that inhibit food bikes. Stay tuned for more details on potential policy work in this area.


If you are interested in starting a food bike enterprise or interested in discussing public policy in this area, come to our teach-in on mobile food at SELC’s Legal Cafe at the Alchemy Collective on September 15 with John and SELC Policy Director Christina Oatfield.

Thanks to our Partners and Collaborators: