Commonwealth Club's The Street Food Movement: SF Hearts the Cart panel
At the Commonwealth Club's Thursday night event, "The Street Food Movement: SF Hearts the Cart," a visibly upset Steven Gbdula (Gobba Gobba Hey) explained that Murat Celebi-Ariner of popular cart Amuse Bouche is being deported even though he's married to a U.S. citizen. ICE's holding him and he's not getting an appeal. At the post-event food tasting at 111 Minna St., Steven and Natalie (Bike Basket Pies) sported t-shirts that read "Free Murat" and other vendors had small signs expressing frustration with the situation.
Natalie of @bikebasketpies
The reaction to Murat's looming deportation highlights one of the major themes of the panel discussion: the importance of community and supporting one another. Murat actually encouraged Steven to start, tweeted about his delicious gobs (an East Coast treat reminiscent of the whoopie pie), and supported other vendors whole-heartedly. The affable Frenchman was a big presence at the 24th St. BART station and will be missed greatly by his customers, but also by the other vendors who have come to see him not just as a fellow business or even a competitor, but as a friend.
The panel discussion was moderated by Tamara Palmer, editor of Pavement Cuisine for SF Weekly and included Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food, Brian (aka the Magic Curry Cart), Steven Gbdula of Gobba Gobba Hey and Charles Phan from The Slanted Door (and Out The Door, Heaven's Dog, Academy Cafe). Questions were largely split into three categories: inspiration for starting the cart, challenges the vendors have faced, and what the future looks like for them.
Regarding getting started, Anthony Myint responded first (Tamara calling him the godfather of the street scene as he started in a taco truck and has since "graduated" to cooking meals twice a week in an actual kitchen). Anthony mentioned he was simply looking for something to do in his free time, and eventually he grew out of the taco truck. It was more about logistics than anything. Brian, the Magic Curry Man, originally opened to make a little extra cash and do something besides his day job as a psychotherapist. He'd traveled a great deal in Asia and noticed San Francisco was really missing street food, so he modeled his cart after one he'd seen in Bangkok. He practiced cooking for friends and scored an old cart from Burning Man. Once people started tweeting about it, the business grew exponentially.
Steven moved to San Francisco exactly one year ago Friday and like Brian, noticed a lack of street food in the city, but more specifically, a lack of the beloved gob. He figured, "I can make these, but it's the Bay Area so I'm going to have to raise my game a little." And that he did, with gobs selling out frequently and admirers obsessively following his tweets. On the flip side, Charles Phan discussed how he originally wanted to open a street cart, but was so overwhelmed by the permit requirements and code restrictions that he was driven to open a "brick and mortar."
Most vendors seemed to have a good sense of humor about the permit requirements and legal restrictions. Steven mentioned that he started with more of a tray than a cart and just walked around the Mission selling his gobs. When he'd see a police presence, he'd duck into doorways whistling inconspicuously. Since then, he's gone "more legitimate," baking in a commercial kitchen and wrapping and sealing his products before they hit the street. Brian mentioned that generally the cops are more concerned with noise or folks lined up blocking the streets.
Neither noise nor street obstructions were a factor at the post-panel street food gathering. The vendors set up in the modern art gallery with people packed in, trying to get their favorite street morsel before the next guy in line.
Post-event food tasting at 111 Minna
The vendors were borrowing kitchen tools and towels from one another and cracking jokes across the room. They all know one another and genuinely seem to care about their mutual success. One of Smitten Ice Cream's recent tweets reads: @@BikeBasketPies and @SmittenIceCream are teaming up today -- treat yourself to "a-la-mode" at Secret Alley (Capp btw 17th & 18th) 2 - 5 PM.. Robyn Sue, of newly formed Smitten Ice Cream explains how important collaboration is and how supportive and helpful the community has been in showing her the ropes.
Robyn Sue and "Kelvin" of @SmittenIceCream
My favorite sample was Robyn's ice cream. The salted caramel was churned out by her trusty (self-designed) machine, "Kelvin." Robyn spent a year constructing Kelvin, who debuted on the streets of San Francisco about a month ago. The bacon potato chips always make me happy, and the pumpkin pie with chocolate chips at Bike Basket Pies made me ponder switching up our family's Thanksgiving pie this year. The ginger cookies from Sweet Constructions were crispy and delightful--and of course, that crème brulee.
So while the presence of carts may wane a bit in the coming rainy months, and while some vendors may eventually tweak their business model to become more "legit," one thing will remain the same: these folks are taking something they genuinely love doing and trying to make a go of it--together. But everything good must evolve, and when asked about their future plans, it was clear this would certainly be the case.
Brian mentioned that Friday is the last day at his "real job" as he's getting laid off. He said he'll definitely be focusing on the cart more and has some ideas for expansion. While making the curry to order in front of folks is undeniably part of the charm, he is thinking about how to be more legitimate (with permits and the like). He's also interested in focusing on nutrition for lower income families. Anthony wants to open a charitable business or a chain based on the Mission Street Food model. Steven has some plans regarding new products, selling gobs on the popular website Foodzie and possibly moving into a retail space. And Charles Phan smiled, stating "I still want to build a cart. I salvaged a 60 foot trailer home and it's sitting in my yard...waiting."