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City puts brakes on movable feast

By John GeluardiDaily Planet staff
Tuesday October 02, 2001

While the city has taken steps to close down the last of Berkeley’s mobile food vendors, the City Council offered a temporary reprieve Tuesday for a popular organic food cart. 

The council approved a recommendation by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to postpone closing Veggie Heaven until the city determines if food carts will be allowed to operate at all in Berkeley. In addition, the council asked the city manager to clarify by Oct. 9, the licensing and re-licensing policy for food carts.  

Finance Director Fran David said the city already has an ordinance that only allows any food cart to operate for four years before the business becomes ineligible for license renewal. She added that no new licenses have been issued in the last two years and the owners of all remaining food carts have been given notice that they will have to shut down. 

David was unable to verify how many food cart businesses are in the city or which ones are currently operating without a license. 

Veggie Heaven is one of three food carts currently operating just outside the UC campus on Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue. The other two carts are the Chinese Kitchen and Musahi. All three sell lunch items for under $5.  

Food carts have been a tradition at the busy intersection since the 1960s. At one time there were as many as eight small businesses selling affordable meals primarily to students.  

Veggie Heaven, which sells burritos, wraps and combination rice plates, has been particularly popular not only for its affordable prices, but because it prepares all of its menu items with organic vegetables and meats.  

Worthington said it would be a shame if Veggie Heaven closed down because it is one of the few places where students can find an affordable, healthy meal.  

“The Veggie Heaven cart is one of the most popular because it’s one of the few places students can find inexpensive organic food,” he said. 

But despite its popularity, David said Veggie Heaven has not had a license to operate for at least 18 months. She said when current owner, Shihadeh Kitami, purchased the business, the operating license became invalid. 

David said the food cart ordinance was designed to help burgeoning entrepreneurs get started in the restaurant business with the hope that within four years they would be able to grow into permanent establishments. 

Kitami, who has in fact opened up Razan Organic Kitchen on Kittredge Street near the university, did not return calls to the Daily Planet on Monday. 

“If Mr. Kitami wanted to get a valid license for Veggie Heaven he would have to reapply to the city and his name would go at the bottom of a list that has over 100 names on it,” she said.  

David said the presence of the food carts is being re-assessed according to the Southside Plan, which is currently being developed. The plan, which is months away from approval by the City Council, would create policy guidelines for building and economic development in the area south of campus. 

University officials and the director of the Telegraph Area Association said the food carts have been controversial in the past but they were unaware of any recent complaints. 

“There were aesthetic concerns about where they were located– right at a major entrance to the campus– and there were problems with littering and the Telegraph Avenue merchants were concerned that students and faculty might stop (at the carts) and get a handy lunch instead of heading down Telegraph where they might shop, in addition to eating,” said Irene Hegarty, the director of community relations for the university. 

Hegarty said the litter issues were resolved by placing more trash receptacles in the area. 

But Hegarty said the carts could conflict with future plans to redesign Sproul Plaza, which is adjacent to food cart location. 

Owners of two nearby businesses, Blakes and Smart Alecs restaurants, said the food carts were of little concern to them.  

“We have a different clientele,” said Harry Keally, part owner of Blakes. “We’ve been here for two years and the food carts have never been an issue.” 

Scott Pennington, who works across the street, said he eats at Veggie Heaven three times a week. He said he didn’t like the idea of losing an affordable and convenient lunch source. “It’s hard to find good, inexpensive and healthy food,” he said.