For seven years, Balbina Sanchez sold her quesadillas and tostadas in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. But it’s illegal for food vendors to set up shop on the city of L.A.’s streets and sidewalks. After police repeatedly seized her merchandise and equipment, she had enough.
Sanchez moved to a farmers market on Plaza de Mariachis in Boyle Heights three years ago. Since sales are allowed there, police aren’t a problem anymore. But her sales are. The market is only open two days a week for a few hours at a time. On the street, she sold every day. And vendors in the farmers market must pay rent, a cost she didn’t have on the sidewalk.
Sanchez would love to go back to selling on the street, but only if it’s legal. So she is one of scores of street food vendors that have joined an effort to legalize sidewalk food vending throughout Los Angeles. They hope a proposal goes to the City Council by the end of this year for a vote sometime early next year.
“If they legalize it, I will go back to the street because there are advantages,” Sanchez said. “It’s cheaper to operate on the street.”
While the legalization effort has so far been concentrated in Boyle Heights and other Eastside neighborhoods, it would affect hot dog carts on Hollywood Boulevard and food vendors in Venice, San Pedro and parts of the San Fernando Valley.
But legalizing street and sidewalk food vending won’t be easy. The move would require Los Angeles County health inspections and licensing. And previous efforts failed.
In recent years, the city has sponsored the creation of a handful of special vending districts. Also, a new wave of farmers markets has brought food vendors off the street. But that’s not enough, according to Mike Dennis, organizing director for the East Los Angeles Community Corp., a non-profit group that’s leading the current legalization effort.
Dennis said his group got involved three years ago after several sidewalk food vendors got pushed off of Breed Street in Boyle Heights after repeated police sweeps.
“It’s astonishing that with the melting pot culture here and the proliferation of street culture that Los Angeles is one of the only major cities in the nation that doesn’t have a citywide mobile vending policy,” Dennis said.
He added that vendors can’t survive on their farmers market income because they’re not open often enough.
“What are vendors supposed to do the rest of the time to make a living?” he asked. “We need to ensure that vendors have a day-to-day space to do business.”
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last week through a spokesman that his office is looking at the issue of legalizing street food vending.
“We are interested in exploring options for the legalization of street vending and creating healthy food choices,” said spokesman Peter Sanders. “We are currently gathering input and feedback from members of the community, including the business and food retail establishments.”
The city’s ban on street and sidewalk vending dates back to the early 1900s, when business interests banded together and decided they didn’t want vendors cluttering streets and sidewalks, hindering pedestrians and vehicles. The ban wasn’t much of an issue until the influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America in the 1980s. They started selling tamales, churros, hot dogs and merchandise on the street. Pushcarts and small food stands became common sights in East Los Angeles, Pico-Union, the MacArthur Park area and several other neighborhoods.
To deal with this first explosion of street and sidewalk vendors, the city in the mid-’90s passed an ordinance allowing the formation of vending districts.
But Gregg Kettles, deputy counsel to Villaraigosa, said the process was so complicated that only two districts were created: one in San Pedro that lasted a few months and another in MacArthur Park that lasted five years. In both cases, vendors didn’t like the restrictions on the types of products they could sell or the hours they could work, so they went elsewhere.
In 2006, city administrators tried to craft a street and sidewalk ordinance, but it died in council committee two years later.
The problems facing street food vendors did not go away.
Take Martha Garcia, who started selling tamales and gelatinas – Mexican gelatin desserts – about five years ago, after the closure of the factory where she worked. She spends most of her time selling her food at two locations near bus stops on Soto Street in Boyle Heights.
Over the last five years, Garcia said she has been raided by police nine times. The police confiscated her inventory and equipment, including plates and utensils. She estimates her losses between $150 and $350 for each raid.
“The raids are getting more expensive each year,” she said. “Lately, I don’t take a lot of food with me so the police can’t take it away. And sometimes I’m afraid to set up my stand so I just come home without selling anything.”
She said the police told her she was taking clients away from restaurants that pay taxes, so that’s why she had to leave. She said she pays income taxes on her earnings for each year.
Garcia said she supports the legalization and regulation of street vending. She said it would make her business more steady and profitable.
“I hope they give us a zone where we can sell,” she said. “If we have to pay the city a set amount every year or every month, that’s fine because that way we all earn money.”
A key component of any legalization plan will be working with county health officials to set up periodic health inspections of all food vendors, paid for by fees levied on the food vendors. Dennis at East Los Angeles Community Corp. said the inspection regimen would likely be similar to the one recently put in place for gourmet food trucks.
He said his group has also reached out to restaurant owners and the food truck industry to gauge their concerns. So far, there’s been little opposition from either industry. That’s largely because they cater to different markets of people seeking complete meals or sit-down service.
Fast-food restaurants that might have some overlapping clientele with street food vendors are not likely to raise too much of a fuss – unless the street vendors set up right in front of the eateries, said Jerry Prendergast, a restaurant consultant in West Los Angeles.
“This is generally not an issue of competition,” he said. “The person buying a $2 tamale from a street vendor is not likely to go in and spend $20 at a sit-down restaurant or $9 for a gourmet hamburger from a food truck.”
Staff reporter Joel Russell contributed to this article.
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