Op-ed: How to help San Jose’s food trucks flourish
Veggielution hosts a program to help entrepreneurs operate their own mobile food businesses. Photo courtesy of Veggielution.

    Since Nov. 2018, Veggielution has worked with seven low-income immigrant street food cart entrepreneurs to explore a new model of community engagement and economic opportunity.

    These mobile food vendors receive technical assistance workshops, secured tax identification numbers, city business licenses, and food handler’s certificates. Veggielution in 2019 partnered with San Jose’s Office of Economic Development to explore the opportunities and challenges of food cart vendors, especially for low-income, immigrant entrepreneurs. Our work is ongoing.

    Many small food entrepreneurs are low-income immigrants and women of color. Most community members we work with speak little English, have varying levels of comfort operating computers and reading, and they may not know how to navigate the city and county systems that issue small business permits. In the Eastside Grown program at Veggielution, 70% of entrepreneurs are extremely low income, 30% are low income, 100% are immigrants, and 95% are women.

    Our findings indicate that food carts have significant community benefits to neighborhood vitality. They foster social interactions and activate underutilized public spaces. Most importantly, food carts provide economic opportunities for immigrants and low-income individuals. Even so, there are significant barriers to their continued stability and success. The city’s support of the street food vendor industry can and should advance the key values expressed in the city’s General Plan and benefit residents of San Jose, and yet we still have not collaboratively found system-based solutions to overcome the barriers that prevent these vendors from legitimately starting their businesses. As an organization, Veggielution works to make the lift easier for our homegrown entrepreneurs.

    Veggielution is a place-based community farm located on the Eastside of San Jose in Emma Prusch Farm Park. In addition to operating a farm, we have a small business entrepreneurship program that works with East San Jose residents hoping to open and operate permitted businesses — cottage food operations, micro-enterprise home kitchen operations (MEHKOs), food carts, food trucks, catering, and selling at farmers markets. Over the past seven years, Eastside Grown has graduated 57 entrepreneurs and helped to permit 13 businesses. Six are currently in the permitting approval process.

    Graduates of Eastside Grown leave the program with a business plan for their food operation and a sense of community support as they navigate through the process of starting their own business. However, the number of permitted businesses is much lower than the number of graduated entrepreneurs who have gone through our program. That’s because there are many barriers that graduates face — high permit fees, complicated relationships with landlords for home businesses, start-up costs, and a lengthy, complicated process to even get a permit. Some entrepreneurs cannot get permission from their landlords to operate out of a rented home; others don’t have funds to cover the permit, application, and commercial kitchen fees.

    For instance, the annual permit fees for food carts range from $138 to $635 with the most common being $438. Beyond this, operators must have a $213 business license from the city, and to operate on city property, obtain another $200 permit from the San Jose Police Department. Even then, they will need to move every 15 minutes. If a vendor doesn’t want to move each 15 minutes, they can either get a $301 permit good for one location on public property for a full year from SJPD or a $3,600 administrative permit to operate for three years on private property from a single location.

    Altogether, the permit costs to start up a food cart business are at least $700 but likely closer to $1,200. Add to this at least $6,500 in start-up supplies including the food cart itself and we begin to appreciate how difficult it is to even start this kind of venture let alone grow it into a success.

    Even beyond the costs, any food cart entrepreneur who chooses to establish the business would need to navigate three complex application processes. Without additional support, many who start the process won’t finish or won’t realize that there are three permits, not just one.

    There have been recent strides by the city and county to show support for small businesses and street vendors. In March, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a three-year pilot of the Micro-Enterprise Home Kitchen Operation program, which allows entrepreneurs to operate a small food business out of their home kitchen. The board of supervisors also waived MEHKO county health permit application fees for 2023.

    In July, San Jose Councilmembers Peter Ortiz and Omar Torres hosted a resource fair for street vendors and micro-businesses at city hall. More than 50 entrepreneurs gathered to learn about workers’ rights, crime prevention, and marketing a small business.

    Both of these events demonstrate that this is an opportunity to streamline permitting processes, review outdated regulations, explore new areas for street food vending and consider long-term solutions for high permit fees for low-income residents. By fostering an environment that is welcoming and supportive, we can empower vendors to flourish and contribute to San Jose’s economy. San Jose is home to many cultures and cuisines; supporting small and home-based businesses is a way to continue to expand our thriving food culture.

    Veggielution is a place-based community organization with a mission to connect people through food and farming across barriers that divide us to build community in East San Jose.  The Si Se Puede Collective is a collective of five nonprofits — Grail Family Services, School of Arts and Culture, SOMOS Mayfair, Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment, and Veggielution — working together to leverage creativity, services and advocacy to create opportunities and access to basic needs, education, literacy and community engagement in the Mayfair community. Peter Ortiz is a San Jose councilmember representing District 5, which includes Alum Rock, Mount Pleasant, and East San Jose. Omar Torres is a San Jose councilmember representing District 3, which includes downtown. 

    Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

    Leave a Reply