Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Veggielution Helps Food Vendors Get Street Legal

Veggielution's 'Eastside Street Food Hub' is setting up weekends near Christmas in the Park. Photo by Nanzi Medrano

Between the Hammer and the Ha Ha, I went looking for Veggielution. Why? Because jackfruit mole tamales and vegan hot chocolate are great ways to activate dead public spaces.

A full-functioning urban farm located at the far back corner of Emma Prusch Park in East San Jose, Veggielution already serves up a bouillabaisse of community activities, including farm tours, garden adventures and all sorts of educational initiatives. People can dig in the soil, cook in the kitchen or harass the pesky peacocks that invade the farm. I've done each of those things myself.

"We went out in East San Jose and we actually walked around and talked to vendors and basically recruited them on the street," said Emily Schwing, Veggielution's development communications manager.

As a result, street vendors accustomed to selling store-bought food from illegal carts with no health permits can now learn how to go through proper channels and do their job on the books. Equipped with a business tax ID and new skills, the vendors are on a path toward starting their own legal street food businesses.

"No one here in San Jose wants a street food scene to be just packaged goods," Schwing said. "They want it to be as diverse as the people. So we help create a system where the different cultures around San Jose will be able to step into a street food scene that's set up for them to be successful, letting them cook what they know how to cook, and making that the new standard."

With a presence near Christmas in the Park, Veggielution intends its "Eastside Street Food Hub" as a way to introduce local food culture to visitors who come to San Jose's main winter attraction. The street food hub was originally located in the dimly lit, horribly designed swath of empty concrete between the Hammer Theatre and Second Street. On paper this made sense, but it turned out the Ha Ha public artwork completely obscured the food hub, disconnecting it from any flow of pedestrian traffic coming from Christmas in the Park. The whole operation then relocated to Paseo de San Antonio in front of the defunct Camera 12 Cinema building, where it will now sit on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings for a few hours, giving passersby a chance to sample a variety of local fare including fresh tamales, sandwiches and holiday drinks made from scratch by East San Jose vendors.

As such, the scenario in front of Camera 12 is a much more effective way to activate a failed public space. The dead theater complex is one of the most hideous eyesores in recent memory, resulting from decades of hick-town redevelopment failures. Now, in front of the building on weekend nights, one finds a handful of vibrant tables where happy families can purchase jackfruit mole tamales and hot cinnamon tea, although the menu will change every weekend. It's a fantastic way to activate an underutilized pedestrian walkway.

To the city of San Jose's credit, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS) stepped in at the last minute to help connect Veggielution with kitchen access at the Gardner Community Center when the previous kitchen wasn't working out. The new food entrepreneurs-in-training were able to get the job done on deadline and bring out the goods.

"Our vendors have never really worked in a kitchen before, so being able to help them operate in a kitchen is also a part of this learning process," Schwing said. "The fact that PRNS just kind of stepped up and found an opportunity, they found a space that wasn't being used, we had a need, and them being able to help us fill that need was huge."