We rely on them to nourish us with their Tandoori chicken, grilled vegetable burritos, Chapati and lentil stews.  We count on their convenient locations when we are rushing around or just want to be outdoors instead of inside a restaurant. We love that they add to our festivities on First Fridays.

But who are the cooks and vendors who supply us with wonderful food from their food trucks and street carts? What challenges do they face as they do this work? What kinds of journeys led them here?

Oakland Local is embarking on a project to acquaint readers with the people who make and sell the delicious food we enjoy from these trucks and carts.  Over the next couple of weeks, we will feature different sellers, what their lives are like, and what they do each day to deliver us freshly prepared dishes from all around the world.

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Our reporting is in tandem with partners at the Media Consortium and Feet in 2 Worlds pursuing the same kinds of stories in other cities in the U.S.

The cuisine available at food trucks and street carts has become an ever more popular choice for people in Oakland–and indeed for people in cities across the country–as a dining experience. One can find the finest made Chapati or enchiladas or spring rolls.

Many of the vendors and cooks are new to this country and bring with them cherished recipes from home. Selling the food sometimes helps them build roots in the local economy. For some, it is their first job in the U.S. For quite a few, it’s one of very few ways to make a living as they wait to gain proper immigration documentation.

Some struggle to get the permits and licenses needed to do this work, only to eke out a meager existence. Others run brisk businesses frequented by repeat customers, but their good luck can be jeopardized in a moment by competing vendors, storefront merchants or unfriendly law enforcement. Some chat all day with customers; others struggle to comprehend the languages and slang spoken in their new country.

It’s not an easy business.  Numerous permits and businesses licenses (eight at the minimum) must be secured first. Vendors who cook or handle food must first take a course in safe food preparation by the Alameda County Environmental Health Department and then seek health inspection permits from both the state and county, which examine their methods of procuring, preparing, handling and selling food. Vendors must lease space in a Health-Department-approved commercial kitchen to do their cooking and preparations.

On any given day, the vendor who appears with a cart full of carefully-prepared and refrigerated and wrapped dishes on a street corner has, more than likely, already put in five to seven hours preparing that food.

From our conversations with vendors, that process often begins with shopping for the freshest fruits and vegetables as they are unloaded from trucks just arrived at Jack London Square early each morning. There, restauranteurs and market owners and food truck vendors all purchase their ingredients, in the wee hours of the morning, starting around 1 a.m.

Then, the street vendors return to their kitchens–industrial, pre-inspected kitchens which have received Department of Health approval–to begin the preparations. Hours later, the dishes are loaded onto their refrigerated carts and trucks, bedecked with signs of various permits. Then we show up to purchase and enjoy the food.

Check back in the coming weeks to meet the chefs and entrepreneurs behind the burgeoning street food industry.

For more stories about Oakland’s street food vendors, follow Oakland Local on Facebook or Twitter. Join the conversation at #foodundocumented.

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