Art Murmur Food Bust

Plus the war of words surrounding Café Gratitude's threatened closure.

This week, the Oakland City Council votes on a temporary resolution to allow food pod events until a more comprehensive mobile-food policy can be established. A police crackdown at Friday’s Art Murmur underscores the city’s need for a sensible plan: All the mobile-food vendors who typically operate at the event were issued tickets and forced to leave.

I showed up later, hoping to grab a sandwich from the Hil’s Cooking sandwich trailer (I’ve heard it offers a mean Philly cheese steak with lamb and grilled cactus). The trailer was nowhere in sight, nor were any of the usual suspects. The only street food I saw was the ubiquitous hot dog guy, who seemed to be doing a very brisk business. I was disappointed, but didn’t think much of it until later.

Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel and veteran of the East Bay mobile-food scene, issued a statement on her Facebook page Monday. She said the Oakland Police Department had shut down all of the event’s mobile food vendors and that they would have to appear in court and pay a fine.

By the letter of Oakland’s mobile-food policy (which is virtually nonexistent at this point), none of these vendors were permitted to sell food at the event. However, they had operated for many months under a sort of tacit acceptance policy, presumably because of the Art Murmur’s community-minded, free-spirited nature.

The police action couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to underscore the need for reform. The Art Murmur is an outdoor, upbeat affair, bringing together Oakland residents from all walks of life. Mobile-food vendors are an obvious complement to this kind of event, like food booths at a county fair or street festival. How better to convince the city council that change is necessary than arbitrarily blocking food vendors from an event where they absolutely belong?

All eyes are now on this week’s vote on the interim policy. Councilwomen Rebecca Kaplan and Jane Brunner (drafters of the resolution) even planned to stage a little PR circus in advance of the vote, inviting three food trucks to set up shop at Frank Ogawa Plaza on Tuesday afternoon. Allowing food pod events, even on a limited basis, would be a much-needed step in the right direction.

Café Gratitude’s PR Battlefield

The Bay Area food scene lost its collective shit last week with the announcement that raw-vegan behemoth Café Gratitude would soon shutter all seven of its Northern California locations (as well as San Francisco Mexican outpost Gracias Madre). On her Facebook page, owner Terces Engelhart cited the chain’s recent legal troubles — stemming from alleged labor-code violations — as the root cause of the closure.

Within an hour of writing a blog post on Café Gratitude’s closing, I received an email from Stephen Sommers, the plaintiffs’ attorney in two of the employment lawsuits. Sommers has been popping up in every news outlet that will give him a couple of column inches. His basic two cents: There’s no way these piddling lawsuits could put such a large enterprise out of business.

Café Gratitude’s husband-and-wife owners also have been making the rounds, continuing to plead poverty on their Facebook page, website, and all over print and TV news. Supportive employees have been hitting the Web (allegedly after the Engelharts encouraged them to do so), leaving near-identical eruptions of praise on every Gratitude-related news story.

No matter whether you love or hate Café Gratitude (it seems there’s little middle ground), there are clearly theatrics at play here. The Engelharts are portraying the lawyers as cash-hungry wolves, with the lawyers retorting that Café Gratitude is a disingenuous corporate monolith.

As both sides scramble to control the public dialogue, the cynics among us seem more compelled by the lawyers’ argument. Plaintiffs Sarah Stevens and Ravi Shankar have brought two civil cases against Café Gratitude, one regarding illegal tip pooling and the other employee misclassification. Combined, they are asking for an amount in the $200,000 range. While not insignificant, this should be manageable for a company of Café Gratitude’s scope. And besides, that’s just the starting price. Like the sticker on a used car, everyone knows you can dicker that figure down.

So for Café Gratitude to close up shop in defeat, long before sitting down at the negotiation table, smells a bit off. They seem too intent on playing their own violins, providing sanctimony and self-pity in lieu of real, hard numbers. Shortly after the closure announcement, Engelhart also made a public plea for supporters to buy the Café Gratitude board game as a gesture of support. This seemed like the calculated maneuver of a sharp businesswoman.

But there is no shortage of earnest Northern Californians who will take Café Gratitude’s sob story at face value. For every snarky online commenter calling bullshit, there’s an earth mother on Café Gratitude’s Facebook page sending infinite blessings and support.

Hallie Albert, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told me, “This is a PR war,” thoug-h the stakes are a bit unclear at this point. It seems unlikely that all this back-and-forth will have a real effect on the ongoing litigation. The Engelharts can persuade the public they are unfairly persecuted, but that isn’t going to do much for them in the courtroom. They still have to convince a judge that they weren’t in violation of state employment statutes.

Could this all be a ploy to get supporters to buy more Café Gratitude merch? Is this bombshell announcement, like Albert suggests, just a precursor to a massive corporate restructuring? The next few months should be very revealing.

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