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The long and complicated road to legal street food vending in Los Angeles

The long and complicated road to legal street food vending in Los Angeles

In September 2018, SB 946, also known as the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, was passed by the Los Angeles City Council. The law made legal what had long been part of the L.A.’s fabric—hot food cooked along thoroughfares and goods and trinkets for sale on street corners all around the city. But what was supposed to be a welcomed change has caused complications for vendors in the years since. 

Before 2016, the act of street vending would result in hefty fines or criminal charges such as misdemeanors but, it was quickly decriminalized by the Los Angeles City Council in an effort to ease the immigration crackdowns prompted by the Trump administration.

The 2018 bill was anything but simple and included a long list of regulations. Limit hours of operation, require additional permitting, and lay out extensive sanitary rules. The bill closes with, “Cities can create their own laws for sidewalk vendors. A vendor must comply with the laws at the city, county, and state level.” 

This open-ended statement has restricted food vendors more than anyone else. For starters, food vendors must not only comply with the rules of SB 946, but the California Retail Food Code as well. The code is a 141-page long book written with the intention to apply brick-and-mortar establishments and without street vendors in mind. For example, a hot dog vendor must have gallons of potable water along with a waste water tank, a three compartment sink, a ventilation hood, and several extra compartments.The reason this is difficult is that it all must fit in a cart, often one that can be pushed around. The vendors must also have their carts approved by the city but many vendors operate out of un-permitted makeshift carts.

Daniel Reyes, owner of El Bote, a Mexican-American fusion food stand out of the Alameda Night market, worked in a restaurant before starting his own business. “I think the way the city goes about it, to getting your permit, it’s a joke. You know, before you even try to sell food or make money it takes about six to eight months before you can even get a permit. And that’s if you have a kitchen to prepare your stuff in. I think there should be a better system to give people permits, you know,” said Reyes. 

Daniel Reyes standing behind his food stand in Los Angeles.

In order to legally sell food, vendors must own a city-approved food cart. Permits are only issued to vendors who have carts approved by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The issue? For the last three years that vending has been decriminalized there has not been a widely accepted cart that vendors can purchase and start selling. As a result, vendors create their own carts in hopes of it to be approved by the city.

To alleviate the issue, Richard Gomez, owner of Revolution Carts, stepped in to help. Gomez has been involved in engineering since 2000. He works as a food truck designer, but eventually started Revolution Carts “out of a necessity to be able to provide a solution for sidewalk vendors” he says.

Since 2006, the price of launching a mobile food business has skyrocketed. This is in part because of a 2008 ordinance that aimed to restrict food trucks on behalf of “residents who find carts eyesores, and some restaurant owners who feel undermined by the price-chopping ways of their mobile competition.” What was once an accessible option for low-income communities, such as food trucks, is now too expensive. Gomez believed there should be more options for low-income people to survive. “My goal was to be able to come up with a design that was affordable for people, I spoke to a lot of the vendors and got an idea of what they were looking for,” said Gomez 

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Gomez designed a cart that had all of the legally mandated compartments and sanitary stations, was relatively easy to push around the city, affordable, and beautiful to look at. When the initial design process began, Gomez listened to the complaints residents voiced at City Council meetings. A common issue revolved around the look of the carts and how that would reflect on the city. That pushed Gomez to focus on aesthetics . 

All of his painstakingly diligent work, combined with a need to provide a polished look for the city, resulted in 10 different designs being created before Gomez landed on something he was happy with. As a result the Tamalero was born — a brightly colored mid-century-esque cart inspired by L.A. lowriders. “If you’re thinking about L.A. the first thing that comes to mind is the lowriders, the classic cars, stuff that gets people excited. I see people and how their eyes kind of just go wide when they see a bunch of classic cars,” said Gomez.

Richard Gomez’s design of his tamale cart. Courtesy of Revolution Carts.

In April 2021, the cart was finally approved by the city. The carts sell for around $7,500 each and are under pre-order. Gomez hopes the Tamalero will be a source of pride for Angelenos and ultimately help a community that is woven into the fabric of the city. With legal carts, Gomez wants to see vendors experience a different type of treatment. “I hope this is going to allow them to have more protections now that they have become a legitimate business. They have more of an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’m a taxpaying business, I demand more protection,’” said Gomez 

Flores and her husband in front of their specialty flan food stand.

Food vendors already have the odds stacked against them and bringing change to their occupation will not happen when vending is continuously portrayed in a negative light. Maria Flores, owner of Delia’s Creamy Flans in the Alameda Night Market, wants people to know that food vendors are “a community of hardworking people.” She added, “Everybody’s just hustling, just hustling to feed our families. I’m pretty sure everybody here wants to make sure that the customer is happy, and I think that’s what the reward is, getting people to enjoy what you’re making.”

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