Street vendors pushing their carts toward legitimacy

Ask Curtis Kimball what his job was a year ago, and he'd have told you he was a carpenter. Now he's the Crème Brûlée Cart guy. Roger Feely was cooking for a local caterer. He's Soul Cocina these days, with catering clients of his own. Mandy Harper was nursing a broken arm, putting on hold her plans to sell vegan pastries to local grocery stores, until she started appearing in the parks as Wholesome Bakery. Thanks to their street-food stands and Twitter accounts, they now have handles. Real businesses. Ambitions.

The street cart movement is now a year old. A few illegal stands set up in the park have morphed into club nights, Web sites, even an iPhone app. No more scrounging cheap Brie at an art opening — now you buy Thai curry and lumpia from your favorite vendors. New microvendors emerge, hoping to replicate the success of Crème Brûlée Cart or Soul Cocina; in turn, the movement's elders are trying to figure out what to do with their success. Is this a hobby? A part-time job? A million-dollar enterprise?

Kimball, Feely, and Harper, at least, are trying to go legit, but in a manner that's as collective-minded as the movement they helped start. Instead of hunting for investors, they're pairing with local bakeries La Victoria and Mission Minis to share fully permitted kitchen space. These businesses, in turn, are bringing street-cart vendors indoors to give them a place to sell their wares — and share in the buzz that still vibrates around the street-cart world.

The model for this approach is five-year-old La Cocina, whose mission is what acting executive director Caleb Zigas calls “formalizing informal entrepreneurs.” La Cocina takes on women who agree to pay for permits, taxes, insurance, and hourly commercial kitchen fees. In turn, the organization helps them get into farmers' markets and find wholesale clients. Zigas has looked for ways to help the street-cart movement, but for the most part, they've chosen not to work with his group — and that concerns him. “I love the innovation of the street-cart guys,” he says. “The part that seems to me to be untenable is their inability to reconfigure their business model to allow for what legitimate business costs would be.”

Crème Brûlée Cart, Soul Cocina, and Wholesome Bakery aren't shying away from getting permits. They're taking more tentative steps, spending less money, relying on their existing reputations to propel them along. Call their approach “semiformalizing.”

Brandon Arnovick, the owner of Mission Minis, is setting up one of these semiformal arrangements. A music producer with too much energy and a thing for cupcakes, he started off baking in his kitchen. Exploratory sales calls to Philz Coffee and Whole Foods went so well that his hobby turned into a steady business. Arnovick went legit quickly, investing $100,000 to turn a former psychic's storefront on 22nd Street and Mission into a fully permitted bakery. Not long after his shop opened this January, the Fire Department shut him down over permit issues, including the size of his oven hood. Zigas let him work out of La Cocina until the problem was resolved; the kitchen fees that month cost Arnovick $7,000. But it gave him the idea of sharing his own kitchen with a few of the food carts he'd heard about.

He met Kimball at a weekly food-cart party at Fabric8, a Mission gallery and boutique, and pitched the custard baker his plan: No hourly fees, just a monthly rental — to be paid in crème brûlées that Mission Minis could sell at the store. Kimball jumped. He now comes to Mission Minis in the evenings, after the cupcake bakers leave, to prepare custards for his three to four weekly events. He has trained the counter staff to torch the custards, which they sell for $4.

After a year of doing this, Kimball's goal is to have a stand somewhere downtown and to sell his product around town. But he doesn't have the cash up front to start that yet. “So I think that the co-op situation is the thinking outside the box to make it work,” he says. Arnovick, in turn, has brought in another popular cart vendor, Pizza Hacker, to throw parties, and is trying to recruit even more small-time vendors — tart bakers, ice-cream-sandwich makers — to complement the crème brûlées and cupcakes.

The business that is taking the fusion between carts and kitchens even further is La Victoria, a 60-year-old panadería on 24th Street and Alabama. In 1992, the current owner, Jaime Maldonado, took over the business his father founded in 1951. Maldonado senior ran one of the first Latino businesses on 24th Street when the strip was still Irish and Italian. He slowly bought up the spaces around him, consolidating them into a warren of rooms that currently houses a spacious bakery and cafe and two large kitchen areas, with storage galore. Maldonado junior, now in his early 40s, has spent a decade repainting, retiling, and replumbing, paying his way with the proceeds from his still-thriving wholesale business.

But thanks to gentrification, the large families who used to come in on a Saturday night to buy $40 worth of pan dulce have disappeared, while the hipster crowd seems to pass by his store, writing it off as just another Latin business they ignore en route to Dynamo Donut. Maldonado has seen his original vision of La Victoria becoming a stylish cafe, art space, and community center serving many of the Mission's overlapping populations eclipsed by the newcomers.

Last summer, Manuel Godino of Venga Empanadas came to Maldonado, asking if he could share La Victoria's fully permitted kitchen space and sell his Argentine empanadas in the bakery cases. Soon after, Wholesome Bakery's Harper showed up, too. She had been joining the cart meetups, selling the vegan, wheat-free cookies, pies, and cakes she was baking in her kitchen.

Last fall, Harper was approached by Debra Resnik, a businesswoman who was opening a marketplace for small, local vendors at 331 Cortland in Bernal Heights. Harper jumped at the chance of renting a stall there — but she needed a commercial kitchen to do it.

Harper heard about Venga's deal with La Victoria, and she and Maldonado worked out a similar arrangement, in which she paid monthly rent in return for kitchen time. “This was a lot better than the hourly commercial kitchen I worked out of,” she says. “Personally, I like Jaime's vibe on it, the way he doesn't count hours, and it's a great atmosphere.” Harper even recruited two other microvendors to share her small stall at 331 Cortland, which opened three weeks ago.

Harper encouraged Feely to approach Maldonado, too. With his DJ background, Feely has emerged as one of the street-cart movement's organizers, throwing parties like his roving Outside In music and food events, which have drawn up to 1,200 people. He wanted to do a big event at La Victoria, and so he and Maldonado worked out a deal in which a bunch of street-cart vendors would pay enough to cover the musicians. The Sweet Corazón de la Mission party took place February 13, featuring a dozen street-food vendors, and partygoers packed La Victoria's red-walled room.

That marked the beginning of Feely and Maldonado's relationship. Feely began renting kitchen space to prep all of his food. A Thursday dinner Feely started holding at La Victoria has turned into a Wednesday and Thursday night popup, with Maldonado and his wife serving, Feely cooking, and anywhere from 20 to 100 diners, many of whom come for Soul Cocina's vegan-friendly menus. Saturday night, La Victoria hosts another regular street-cart gathering. That one has had mixed success, depending on who's cooking and how many Twitter followers they have, but it has also become a slot for new carts to debut.

Maldonado is currently renting kitchen space to Venga, Soul Cocina, and Wholesome Bakery, plus another small baker (Sour Flour) and a new Filipino food truck (Hapa SF). La Victoria's primary bakery production is from 2 to 8 a.m., so Maldonado still has room to expand the community of microvendors. He has bought new convection ovens and installed more tables and shelves, asking his tenants to help him reconfigure the space. “We can [eventually] fit eight to 10 people in the back,” he says, “as long as we can have a certain number of morning people and a certain number of evening people.”

With almost two decades of experience managing a 60-year-old business, Maldonado also tries to impart common sense to his band of entrepreneurs fueled up on Twitter buzz. Big plans and spreadsheets are great, he says. “But just because you sell 20 today, it doesn't mean you're going to sell 40 in a month,” he warns them. “Business moves more slowly than that.”

Soul Cocina and Crème Brûlée Cart are still hitting the street circuit, but Harper has retired her cart since 331 Cortland opened. “The street carting was wonderful, and a really good catalyst to get my name out there,” she says. “But I don't have the time anymore, and besides, that isn't my ultimate goal. I want to have a legitimate company. I want it to grow and do lots of good things.”

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