How Street Vendors Finally Made Street Food Legal In California

Vendors hand out free food to attendees at Los Angeles' Mariachi Plaza on Sept. 30, where local street food vendors celebrated the signing of SB 972. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

Jireh Deng

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How Street Vendors Finally Made Street Food Legal In California

After well over a decade of strategic activism in Los Angeles, Breed Street’s “last vendor” is celebrating a new statewide measure that gives street food vendors new rights and opportunities.

Story by Oscar Perry Abello

Photography by Jireh Deng

Published on Oct 4, 2022

Caridad Vazquez is at her happiest when she’s out on the streets selling quesadillas and pozole. These days you can usually find her out at the corner of Fourth and Breed Streets, in Boyle Heights, a Latino immigrant stronghold in Los Angeles.

“It brings me joy to go out and sell things to people who maybe have not tasted them in a long time because it’s from their country,” Vazquez tells Next City through an interpreter.

It’s brought her a livelihood, too. With her street vendor income, over the past two decades Vazquez has supported three daughters and now helps out with nine grandchildren.

Vazquez first started street vending 40 years ago, she’s proud to say, on the streets of Mexico City. After 10 years, she had to flee her home and ended up in Boyle Heights, where she found work at a Mexican restaurant. After another decade, the restaurant shut down, and Vazquez returned to her roots as a street vendor.

That was 2006. Vazquez found a place among the legendary vendors at a city-owned parking lot on Breed Street, near the intersection with Cesar Chavez Avenue. In her recollection, there were maybe 40 or 50 other vendors there at the time, some of whom had been selling food there for 30, maybe 40 years. According to the Los Angeles Times, “there were few better places in Los Angeles to eat Mexican street food” than this informal, unpermitted Breed Street market in Boyle Heights.

Back then, there were no permits for street vendors to be at Breed Street – or anywhere else in Los Angeles, for that matter. Out of the 30 most populous California cities, Los Angeles was one of eight without a sidewalk vending permit system.

One day in early 2008, police officers showed up at the Breed Street market, telling the vendors they didn’t have permits and so they had to leave or face arrest. The officers came back the next day, and the next, making the same threats, for 15 straight days.

“The police had confronted the other vendors in the past, sometimes had confiscated their items,” Vazquez says. “I never had an experience like that. I felt like a criminal for the first time.”

The city eventually shut down the Breed Street market in 2009. Vazquez became known as “The Last Vendor on Breed Street.” By then, she was already making her first moves as the catalyst for a street vendor-led movement to decriminalize, legalize and protect street vending not just in Boyle Heights or Los Angeles, but across the entire state of California.

Now, with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Sept. 23 signing of SB 972, the California street vendor movement has achieved its latest victory. It’s a full-circle moment. This particular legislation eliminates the final legal hurdles for California street vendors to get permits authorizing the sale of food from their beloved, iconic carts and stands.

“We contribute to the city, and our way of living depends on vending,” Vazquez says. “But we are still scared, because even though we’re now protected by law, the racism and discrimination still exist and many people still don’t respect us.”

Caridad Vazquez speaks to Telemundo on Sept. 30 about the historic win for vendors with SB 972. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“There’s nothing and then it happens massively”

Although street vending has a long history in Los Angeles, going back at least 100 years, it has often been a contentious one.

A century ago, Los Angeles street vendors “could pay a fee to be licensed as a foot peddler, a peddler with a horse and wagon, or a seller of merchandise from a stand on the sidewalk.” That option is long gone.

In 1995, the City of Los Angeles announced a one-year pilot program to legalize street vendors in eight areas. But only one of those areas was ever officially designated — MacArthur Park — and only 14 permits were issued during the pilot program’s existence.

Even the California cities that did have street vendor permit programs in place as of 2008 had restrictions so onerous that legal aid groups like Public Counsel called them a “de facto ban” on street vending.

Those who turn to street vending are typically at the bottom of the socio-political ladder — immigrants from Latin America or East Asia, recent arrivals from the South during the Great Migration period, agricultural laborers coming into the city during a bad harvest year or those returning home from mass incarceration, as well as many veterans. A majority of sidewalk vendors are women, many of them single mothers, often between their mid-30s to their 50s in age.

Many street vendors don’t have status as permanent residents or citizens, making them particularly vulnerable when police and other enforcement agents come around threatening fines or arrests if they don’t leave the spaces where customers expect vendors to be. Street vendors are also easy for elected officials to ignore if they can’t vote — even if they pay taxes, as many do.

Despite the risks to themselves and their families, an estimated 50,000 street vendors across Los Angeles generate $504 million in revenue a year, according to a 2015 report by the Economic Roundtable.

Most Los Angeles street vendors sell merchandise, such as clothing and cell phone accessories, while around 10,000 or so sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs, tamales, quesadillas, ice cream and other street food. For some like Vazquez, street vending is their preferred path. Others eventually transition into food trucks or even brick-and-mortar locations, while others may use street vending as a safety net in between jobs or careers.

“We see that vending itself is an awesome springboard for anybody to either stay as an independent vendor, as an independent business owner, or springboard into something else,” says Sergio Jimenez, lead street vendor organizer at the L.A.-based Community Power Collective. “Brick and mortar business is not for everybody. A lunch truck is not for everybody.”

Street vendor supply chains are mostly local, according to the Economic Roundtable. In a survey conducted by UCLA urban planning graduate students, 70% of street vendors purchased supplies from local supermarkets or other brick and mortar suppliers. Food vendors were found to have a disproportionately positive impact on the local economy, generating $1.60 in local economic activity for every $1 in revenue, compared with $1.04 in economic activity for every $1 in street vendor revenue overall.

And yet, periodic crackdowns on street vending come and go like the tides. Sometimes it’s political, striking whenever big campaign contributors or property owners complain about the smells, noise or trash. It doesn’t matter if the complaints aren’t verified, or if the smells are actually a delight to people passing by. But a lot of the time, no one can say — or no one is willing to say — why the crackdowns only happen periodically.

“Every single generation of vendors have had to work within limitations to public access on the sidewalk and criminalization,” says Jimenez. “It goes high, it goes low, it goes high, and it goes low, it comes, then there’s nothing and then it happens massively.”

Jimenez says the crackdowns often occur at the worst possible moment – in the wake of an economic downturn, when other income sources dry up. Some turn to street vending as a backup plan, resulting in a spike in vendor presence, drawing the eye — and the ire — of public officials. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jimenez estimates the number of street vendors in Los Angeles County may have spiked up to 80,000.

“Cities don’t really want massive street vendor markets or overflow of market stalls, they want control,” Jimenez says. “It’s exclusionary politics, they want to continue keeping working class people of color in an economic system of slavery, as minimum-wage laborers.”

Elsy Carreto prepares free fruit for attendees from her vending stand for the at Mariachi Plaza, where street vendors and community members gathered Sept. 30 to celebrate the landmark legislation. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“Not in their job description at the time”

One turn toward a particularly high tide of street vendor antagonization started in 2008, when law enforcement started threatening the Breed Street vendors.

It was the beginning of what was to become the Great Recession. Vazquez still remembers the date — March 9, 2008 — when she crashed a tenant organizing meeting at the Lou Costello Recreation Center in Boyle Heights. The East LA Community Corporation had convened the meeting to talk about fighting to save tenants being evicted from a local condominium. She came to talk about a different kind of eviction happening in the neighborhood: the police officers who were threatening to arrest her and the dozens of other Breed Street Market food vendors if they didn’t leave.

“At that moment I was told that the organization was not prepared to help with the situation we were facing, they were only working on housing,” Vazquez says. “But they did not ignore me, either.”

The staff set up an appointment for her to come by the office on the following Monday. She wanted the organization to ask the police to stand down, and to help look into how the street vendors could get permission to sell food legally where they were, where people expected them to be. The situation remained tenuous for the next year or so.

In 2009, Vazquez says, she went with East LA Community Corporation staff to visit the offices of then-Council Member Jose Huizar, who grew up in Boyle Heights. (Huizar has since been arrested and is currently awaiting a corruption trial). Huizar’s office told them there were no permits for street vendors, and there was nothing they could do. The city cleared out the Breed Street market that year.

In 2010, Vazquez tried to return, but could only get as close as Breed and First Streets, about two blocks away. The police came again to confiscate vendor items and force them elsewhere. That same year, the East LA Community Corporation held its first community forum on the state of street vending.

It wasn’t really until 2011, Vazquez says, when momentum really started to build. There was another meeting that took place at the East LA Community Corporation’s headquarters. Around two dozen local organizations were represented. Vazquez gave a speech, telling everyone all that had transpired since 2008. It was the birth of the LA Street Vendor Campaign.

“They got the organizations to start paying attention, even though it was not in their job description at the time,” Vazquez says.

The LA Street Vendor Campaign would eventually count 63 organizations as members, in the fields of community development, immigrant rights, civil rights, public interest law, public health, municipal law, food equity, small business development, safe and vibrant streets and economic development. The campaign steering committee includes the East LA Community Corporation, Community Power Collective, Public Counsel and community development group Inclusive Action for the City.

It would take nearly a decade for the campaign to overcome the myths and misperceptions, many of them racist, and finally decriminalize and legalize street vending, including for street food.

In 2013, council member Huizar introduced a motion in Los Angeles City Council to legalize street vending by creating a sidewalk vending permit system, but the proposal was destined to bounce around in city council for the next several years. While both supporters and opponents raised questions about implementation and enforcement, opposition from property owners and brick and mortar restaurants emphasized what they viewed as unfair competition from street vendors, who they believed can charge lower prices for the same dishes.

“As much as an anti-capitalist I am, we do live in it and have to acknowledge that there is a system of capitalism here,” Jimenez says. “But why are you afraid of competition? Why are you afraid of a little doña who comes from Guatemala who sells something really bomb that comes from a massive thousand-year history of cuisine? Why are you afraid of her, but local brick-and-mortar restaurants and cities are okay with having McDonald’s everywhere? That’s a topic we still encounter today.”

Pilar, who frequently works as a vendor on Whittier Boulevard, honors her peers for their work to pass SB 972. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“It’s important to do that in a way that also builds power”

The first real victories for the LA Street Vendor Campaign came in the wake of what felt like a huge loss — the 2016 presidential election. In the context of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and early administration actions against immigrants, local and state politicians suddenly appeared motivated to protect those they had long discounted or ignored.

In 2017, Los Angeles City Council approved a measure to decriminalize street vending, taking enforcement against sidewalk vending out of the police department’s hands and lowering the penalty from a misdemeanor to an administrative offense punishable only by a fine. The bill also reignited the process to establish a sidewalk vending permit system.

But continued resistance kept that local process in limbo. Meanwhile, street vendors in other cities and counties were starting to face deportation after being arrested for unpermitted street vending. So California street vendors and organizers also kept working at the state level to enshrine the decriminalization of street vending, while pushing local governments to establish workable street vending regulations.

Vazquez made her first lobbying trip to Sacramento in 2018.“We were afraid of what might happen without the support from the state,” Vazquez says.

Los Angeles City Council did finally pass a motion to legalize and regulate street vendors in April 2018. Before it could be implemented, in September 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, sponsored by then-State Sen. Ricardo Lara.

Ricardo Lara holds Caridad Vazquez shoulders as she talks. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act accomplished several key goals. Decriminalizing street vending statewide was just the first. It also tweaked state laws to make it so local governments had to clearly define local street vendor regulations, subject to new statewide guidelines. If local governments wanted to restrict street vending in any way, they had to provide a clear and legitimate reason.

Under the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, local governments in California may only restrict the location of street vending for public health or safety reasons or temporary events like filmmaking or farmers’ markets. They may not use other justifications, like preventing smells and noise, protecting brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition or the ever-present racist dog whistle of “protecting neighborhood character.”

The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act also prohibits local governments from capping the number of street vendor permits — though it may still be permissible for cities or counties to limit the number of vendors per block or sidewalk length, for public safety reasons. In New York City, which has had a cap in place since the 1980s, the limited number of street vendor permits force many vendors into a black market where they have to pay $20,000 to $30,000 every two years to secure a mobile food vendor permit.

Los Angeles City Council then had to adjust its local program based on the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. The city’s local street vending permit program finally opened for applications in January 2020.

Throughout the various local and state legislative processes, vendors’ presence at the table was essential. Telling their stories directly to legislators became the main strategy to undo officials’ often-toxic misperceptions about street vendors.

“Through this movement, we were able to elevate street vendors to the status of an actual business,” Jimenez says. “Some folks were like, why don’t they pay taxes? Well, they do. They have a seller’s permit, they have a Business Tax Registration Certificate, they have receipts from paying taxes three or four times a year.”

Having street vendors at the table also helps dismantle the deeper underlying power structures that maintain all kinds of intertwined racial, social and environmental injustice. It’s not the kind of progress that’s easily measurable, if at all, but it’s on the minds of the professionals supporting these street vendors with organizing and legal support.

“We want to think about changing policy, because it’s important to change to create material benefit and to change conditions,” says Doug Smith, supervising senior staff attorney at Public Counsel. “But it’s important to do that in a way that also builds power and centers the expertise of those historically left out of those discussions. Because only by attacking those underlying disparities in access and disparities of power, that’s the only way that we’re actually going to chip away at the structural racism and economic exclusion.”

As momentous as it was for California street vendors to help shape and ultimately get the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act passed, little did anyone realize how much work was left to do — how much more street vendors themselves would soon reshape the landscape of laws and regulations affecting street vendors and their communities in California.

Organizers dance as local mariachi band La Victoria performs at Mariachi Plaza for the Sept. 30 celebratory event. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“Not just making phone calls”

Around 11 o’clock on the night of Aug. 2 this year, street vendors started arriving in Boyle Heights, at a former hospital parking lot now controlled by a local community land trust. Some were from the neighborhood, including Caridad Vazquez and a handful of others whom she’s been organizing alongside since 2008. Newer faces in the group, like Loni Robinson, came from as far as the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles.

Robinson hails from Rancho Cucamonga, though she also works a lot of events in L.A., like the Black Women Vend Nightmarket in Leimert Park. Growing up, she dreamed of owning her own business, but eventually found herself working in large corporate food chains. After some downsizing in 2017, she took her severance checks, cashed out her 401(k) and took what she learned to set out building Kalypso Sweet Ice. What some know as snow cones, shave ice, raspados or piragua, sweet ice is what they call it in Guyana, the South American country where Robinson’s family is from.

“Brick and mortar is nowhere in the plans” for her business, Robinson says. She envisions having others buy in as franchisees, selling Kalypso Sweet Ice from a tent and table at events or on sidewalks all over sunny California, seven days a week.

But first she had to make it legal. That’s what Robinson came to do that night in Boyle Heights back in August. At 1 a.m., the 50 or so street vendors boarded a charter bus for the six hour drive to Sacramento for a day of lobbying legislators to pass SB 972. Robinson made four trips to Sacramento this year, all in support of the bill — now traveling under the banner of the California Street Vendor Campaign.

Sponsored by State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 23, SB 972 amends and extends the California Retail Food Code so that street vendors serving or selling food can actually obtain the health permits necessary to operate their businesses legally. It also reduces violations of the new law from a criminal offense to an administrative offense punishable by only a fine.

“The vendors had a voice and that was so important, so imperative to the functionality of this bill so that it made sense to vendors,” says Robinson, who served as a member of a vendor panel that helped draft the bill over the spring and summer. Every other week, sometimes more, the panel pored over the latest drafts and provided feedback to lawyers and legislators.

“We debated and voted on different parts of the bill – should we push back against this change, or concur with that change? So the vendor voices were included not just making phone calls to the various departments and offices, but also in the making and the amending and the adjusting of the bill.”

The need to change the state’s retail food code became apparent not long after the 2018 passage of the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. Food vendors were still not able to completely legalize because they also needed to obtain permits from the local public health department.

For L.A. and most of California, the public health department is at the county level. Over the course of 2019, in regular meetings with L.A. County public health officials, street vendors and organizers grew increasingly frustrated with the requirements officials were imposing on street vendors selling food.

“The California Retail Food Code applies to restaurants and farmers markets and street vendors,” Smith at Public Counsel says. “But the laws and regulations were written during a time when street vending was still mostly illegal.”

Luis Gonzalez hands a child a sweet treat at Los Angeles' Mariachi Plaza on Sept. 30. (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“Informal arrangements”

Of the estimated 10,000 sidewalk food vendors working in Los Angeles, only 165 had received permits by August 2021, according to Public Counsel. The legal aid group detailed the barriers to street vendor health permits and recommendations to remove them in a report called “Unfinished Business.”

SB 972 includes a number of fixes to all the major barriers identified. Many had to do with cart design: Previously, the California Retail Food Code required all food vending carts to carry at least 15 gallons of water for washing utensils and equipment, a triple-basin sink for washing utensils and a separate hand washing sink with a water heater capable of heating at least four gallons of water at a time or an instantaneous heater capable of heating water up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Under SB 972, as long as no raw meat is cooked on the cart, there is no requirement for a triple-basin sink, only a handwashing sink. The new law also lifts the statewide ban on re-heating foods cooked at a licensed commissary kitchen or storing those foods on a heated tray or in a heated container — further reducing the need to cook raw meat at all from a food cart.

Additionally, street vendors can meet the handwashing sink requirement by working with a local agency or community organization to designate a handwashing sink to serve multiple street vendors — similar to California’s requirements for temporary vendors at farmers’ markets.

Based on the previous code, a taco cart would have to weigh 1,200-1,600 pounds and be over 16 feet long, Public Counsel estimated. That barrier no longer applies thanks to SB 972.

“It should open up a lot more opportunities for food vendors,” Smith says.

Other key barriers were logistical — especially access to commissary kitchens. In most states where street vending is legalized, street vendors must show they have a lease or membership at a licensed commercial kitchen space where they can store and pre-cook raw foods, clean their carts or stands and store everything cleanly overnight.

But in Los Angeles, a city of 500 square miles, there are only somewhere between 30 and 50 commissary kitchens approved by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and many are in industrial areas not conveniently located to street vendor hot spots, according to Rudy Espinoza, executive director at Inclusive Action for the City. If vendors can even find a commissary kitchen that works for them logistically, there’s no guarantee that kitchen has space for them.

Relying on street vendor input, SB 972’s solution formalizes what some street vendors have already been doing.

Some vendors have been using their homes as commissary kitchens to prep and pre-cook food for the day, especially during the pandemic when there was a rise in street vending coupled with the potential risk of contracting COVID-19 at a busy commercial kitchen space. The state of California already had a program to certify home kitchens for use in the catering business, known as the microenterprise home kitchen operation or MEHKO program. SB 972 expands that program to allow local public health departments to inspect and certify home kitchens as commissary kitchens for up to two food carts or stands.

Other street vendors have had informal arrangements with local restaurants to prep and pre-cook food as well as clean and store carts or stands and other equipment. This bit of extra rental income could go a long way for a restaurant that barely made it through the pandemic.

“A lot of these vendors don’t have access to personal transportation, they’re working in their neighborhood, so if you’re asking them to go even just six miles away, they have to think about having to take their cart on the bus or how else they can transport everything back and forth,” Smith says. “But instead they’ve been able to create these informal arrangements where they stay in the neighborhood, they circulate capital in their neighborhood, they create agreements that benefit the entire ecosystem of their neighborhoods.”

SB 972 now allows vendors and restaurants to formalize those relationships with existing restaurants or corner stores as commissary kitchens. It also opens up the possibility for churches, schools and community organizations that might have under-utilized kitchen spaces to get those spaces permitted for use as street vendor commissaries.

“We hope that this can be part of the bill that benefits vendors, but also benefits the broader economy and catalyzes additional business opportunities and ways for different types of small businesses to work together and both benefit,” Smith says.

SB 972 also boosts another potential business opportunity — for the manufacturers of street vendor carts and stands. The bill authorizes local public health agencies to establish standardized cart designs approved for mass production. By purchasing a cart with a pre-approved design, food vendors would no longer have to get their carts inspected individually as part of the permitting process — unless they want to have a customized cart of some kind, which would cost an extra fee for health code inspection.

And because of the changes to cart design requirements, Espinoza anticipates the carts will be much more affordable than the current designs for code-compliant carts, which run anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.

“It’s going to create so many jobs,” Espinoza says. “Thousands of street vendors getting legalized, permitted, all the jobs at the cart manufacturers, the commissary spaces. It’s an ecosystem.”

Ricardo Lara poses with vendors for a photo as they cheer “Si se puede!” (Photo by Jireh Deng)

“Peace of mind”

SB 972 also decriminalizes the new street vendor portions of the California Retail Food Code. Violations are no longer misdemeanors, only administrative offenses punishable by a schedule of fines that goes up for multiple violations within less than a year.

For Robinson, decriminalization of food vending is the most meaningful change. Though she of course plans to comply with all the health codes that apply to her sweet ice business, she’s wary of law enforcement. Her children are all grown now, so she’s usually out vending by herself. Until now she’s only been out vending at scheduled, temporary events like night markets and festivals or farmers’ markets that create a safe but temporary space for street vendors. Now she can start planning for when she can give up the second job she’s needed to sustain herself up to this point.

“I don’t fear the people in the street, I fear enforcement,” Robinson says. “Who would know that I disappeared if I disappeared? Until I get that phone call for someone to come get me or to bail me out or anything like that. Now it gives me more peace of mind where I feel like I can increase my business activity and my business revenue by three times, vending seven days a week if I want to.”

Robinson says it’s not just vendors who need education on their new rights and the new options that will be opening up for them (which will still vary greatly based on local regulations). She’s far more worried about educating the enforcement officials about all the new laws and regulations. Enforcement agents might confiscate carts and utensils and throw vendor food in the trash, she imagines, even when it turns out later that everything was up to the new health codes as established under SB 972.

“From the top down, those leaders have to get properly educated,” Robinson says. “You can’t just attack a person because they don’t have paperwork. It can be damaging to mental health…The education of how to interact and how to treat people who may or may not be properly permitted needs to be had.”

But for now, it’s a moment she and Vazquez and the others can finally celebrate. She’s more optimistic than ever now that her street vendor franchising plan can be a seven-days a week business.

“I feel like with 972, I am now going to be able to have that opportunity to increase the activity of my business in various locations across the state,” Robinson says. “L.A. and San Bernardino are the two biggest counties in Southern California. I’m definitely excited. I’m super stoked.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.

Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

Follow Oscar .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Jireh Deng is a queer Taiwanese/Hong Konger American poet and journalist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley.

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