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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly State of Street Food in America

Mobile food vending has become an integral part of this country's culinary and social identity. Here's a look at the state of street food in three U.S. cities.

Morris Food Truck, New York City
Morris Food Truck, New York City
Official Site

Food trucks and street food vendors are a reality in America's changing food landscape; whether a person is simply trying to scrape a few extra dollars together for their family, has always dreamed of owning a food truck, or can't afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to open a physical restaurant (want to open a Taco Bell franchise? You need to be worth at least $1.5 million), people have their reasons for eschewing the traditional brick-and-mortar establishment.

Food trucks and street vendors are a reality in America's changing food landscape.

Cities have had to adjust on the fly, and quickly, to update city and health codes for these new mobile culinary entrepreneurs. Some cities have been flexible, working with business owners to create a system where mobile vendors can work in (relative) peace, without creating traffic hazards or posing too much of a threat to brick-and-mortar establishments. Other cities have been more intractable, refusing to update decades-old laws and forcing mobile food vendors into a position of having to work in an uneasy state of nebulous legality, or having to stop working altogether. Here is an overview of three large American cities, each with a different approach to street food legalization: San Antonio, New York, and Los Angeles. They represent the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the current state of street food in the U.S.

Food trucks in Downtown San Antonio [Photo: Facebook[

Food trucks in Downtown San Antonio [Photo: Facebook]

The Good: San Antonio

The inclusion of San Antonio in this article shouldn't require defending, but here is a pre-emptive retort to those who somehow think San Antonio isn't "important:" It's the seventh biggest city in the country. It's been the fastest-growing city in the country over the last decade. It's bigger than San Diego, Dallas, and San Francisco. It's a huge, vibrant city.

In San Antonio, the laws are comprehensive and relatively clear, and the city is pleasantly responsive.

It's a city, moreover, that's doing many things right regarding mobile food vending and changing its laws to keep up with the recent food truck proliferation. The laws are comprehensive and relatively clear, and the city is pleasantly responsive: I called the city government health office to ask about food vending permits. I called after business hours, and left a message, thinking it would end up in the bureaucratic government ether where requests for information go to die. An employee from the city called me back at 8 a.m. the following morning.

Mobile vending requirements, which are listed on the city's website in both English and Spanish, are clearly spelled out and broken down by food types. Selling sandwiches? There's one set of guidelines. Selling whole fish or shrimp? There's another. Sno-cones? Roasting corn? The laws are different. One particularly well thought out piece of legislation regards vendors of ice cream and frozen novelties: In order to sell ice cream in San Antonio, you need a written letter from the police department stating that you're not a sex offender.

They really covered all the bases at San Antonio City Hall.

They really covered all the bases at San Antonio City Hall.

One hiccup in the vendor valhalla of San Antonio, however, is the demand that food trucks maintain a 300-foot distance from any physical building that vends food. That's given rise to the proliferation of food truck parks, giant vacant lots away from commercial zones that become destinations in and of themselves. One such park, called The Block, was brilliantly established near the University of Texas, San Antonio and has become a favorite destination for college kids. Another, the Alamo Street Eat Bar, is located near a large park in the city center.

In response to a query for information about whether starting a food truck in San Antonio was a good idea or not, Keith Hill, director of the San Antonio Food Truck Association, sent an otherwise blank email with a link to a site that ranks the top 20 U.S. cities for opening food trucks. San Antonio is number one on the list.

Halal Guys, NYC [Photo: Official]

Halal Guys, NYC [Photo: Facebook]

The Bad: New York City

Want to operate a food truck or food cart in NYC? This is essentially how it works: The New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene runs the show. Get to know the acronym "DOHMH" extremely well. In order to peddle anything from a mobile unit — be it hot nuts or fancy gourmet sliders — you need 1) a license and 2) a permit. They are separate, distinct pieces of paper issued by the DOHMH, and you need both to operate legally. Seem a bit arcane? It's the same idea as needing both a driver's license and vehicle registration in order to legally drive a car. Think of the experience, then, as like dealing with the DMV (one that is probably remarkably similar, actually, in its traumatic customer service experience). Once that is taken care of, simply contact the Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation to arrange an inspection of your cart or truck and voilà! You are on your way to bilking the Euros out of those pesky tourists in Central Park, one $4 bottle of water at a time.

The number of available permits in NYC has not budged in more than 30 years.

The licensing part — very simple. No trouble at all to obtain a license. Here's the problem, however: You can't get a permit. No one can. "I'm so sorry, we're currently not accepting any applications for food vendor permits." That's Jennifer at the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. No applications whatsoever? Can I be added to a wait list? "No, not until the current wait list is exhausted." And that, sadly, is the catch. The number of food vending permits was reduced, twice, in the late '70s and early '80s from 12,000 to where it currently stands today: 3,000 for a city of 8.5 million people. The reduction was in response to pressure from business interests as well as the general tenor of intense civil unrest during the beginning of Ed Koch's mayoral tenure — the Bronx burning, Son of Sam, and the citywide blackout of 1977. Koch had a vested interest in keeping the peace and clearing sidewalks, even if it meant sacrificing the means of survival of many of NYC's poorer inhabitants.

The number of permits, however, has not budged in more than 30 years. The current wait list is extremely long. It's so long, the DCA isn't even adding names to it, nor can anyone tell me exactly how long it is. "I think it's been that way since, oh, 2007 or something," said Jennifer. I tried a few different angles, pleading my case, seeing if there was any chance at all she would even consider sneaking me onto the tail end of the wait list. No luck. One option, however, was available. Something that was un-enticingly called "Restricted H06."

"The one thing you could apply for is Restricted H06," she said. That allows vending on private property, such as a fenced-in commercial lot, but not on any public thoroughfare. The DOHMH website is apologetic (almost) about its utter lack of opportunities:

The link, by the way, which purportedly leads to information about when the wait list may re-open? It goes to an error page.

The link, by the way, which purportedly leads to information about when the wait list may re-open? It goes to an error page. [Screengrab: DOHMH website]

So your choices are: 1) Find a hobby while you wait for years or decades (quite literally) for a permit to open up; 2) Give up the idea of having a food truck/cart; 3) Work in someone else's food truck; 4) Work in a much less lucrative "restricted" area (or deal with the NYC Parks Department, which is its own separate exorbitant racket); or 5) Withdraw a wad of cash from your checking account, talk to a guy who knows a guy, and hit the black market.

Illegally obtaining the permit from someone else is an option that many are forced into.

That last choice — illegally obtaining the permit from someone else — is an option that many who are desperate to get their business operation up and running are forced into. Existing permit holders are in a plum position, as permits can be renewed indefinitely and cheaply — at a mere $200 for a two-year permit. Precious permits rarely hit the open market because those who hold them know they can "rent" them out illegally for 100 times what they actually cost. It's led, unfortunately, to a culture of shady, back room, envelopes-stuffed-with-cash dealings, where the unwitting purchaser is frequently swindled by the license holder.

That's what happened to Cinnamon Snail — the beloved NYC vegan food truck that was forced to cease operating in NYC earlier this year despite a rabid customer base and successful $85,000 Kickstarter campaign — due to financial misdealings while attempting to obtain a black market permit. Cinnamon Snail posted on its Facebook page briefly explaining what happened:

Cinnamon Snail Facebook page

[Screengrab: Cinnamon Snail Facebook page]

2009 probe from the Department of Investigation determined that "probably" 500 of the existing 3,000 vendor permits are held illegally. Cinnamon Snail owner Adam Sobel explained further in an interview with Grub Street: "Street vendors are an integral part of New York City's food culture," he said. "And this system has criminalized people who make food on the street, because they're renting permits and it's real shady."

The non-profit Street Vendor Project, which is aligned with the Urban Justice Center, is fighting to have the permit caps lifted to ensure equal access for all budding entrepreneurs. They portray the permit question as a human rights and quality-of-life issue: Many vendors, unable to legally obtain permits and unable to afford black market permits, are forced to work illegally, subjecting them to legal trouble, fines, and retribution from other vendors. There is currently a bill on the floor of the NY State Senate that would establish a vendor policy commission and address the issue of lifting vendor permit caps.

Kogi BBQ Truck, Los Angeles [Photo: Facebook]

Kogi BBQ Truck, Los Angeles [Photo: Facebook]

The Ugly: Los Angeles

Street vending in Los Angeles is illegal. Straight up illegal. That's the short version. The long version is, of course, more nuanced and complicated (food trucks, for example, are legal, and L.A. has a thriving food truck scene), but all roads lead to the same place: if you're on foot, you cannot legally sell food (or anything else) on the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles.

Out of the top 10 most populous cities in America, Los Angeles is the only one where street vending is completely illegal.

Out of the top 10 most populous cities in America, Los Angeles is the only one where street vending is completely illegal. Not that that has stopped people from peddling roasted corn, t-shirts, toys, and household goods on L.A.'s sidewalks. The city has, ironically, the most street vendors out of anywhere in the country — by many accounts, more than 50,000. Among the city's minority and immigrant populations, it's primarily used as a way of earning a living.

Many turn to street vending when the economy is soft, but are necessarily at the mercy of law enforcement authorities who can issue citations and confiscate equipment. Authorities don't enforce laws consistently or uniformly, however, leading to a constant state of fear among vendors. Street vending is illegal the same way jaywalking in New York is technically illegal — despite the unlawfulness, everyone does it with impunity. Police can, however, selectively enforce the law at any time. It usually happens if a nearby business calls the city to complain about the presence of a vendor, or if a spiteful neighbor or passerby simply decides they don't want the vendor around.

"It's difficult," said Alejandra, who makes blue corn quesadillas in the Echo Park neighborhood, and has been fined multiple times by police during random drive-bys. "In reality, we [street vendors] suffer a lot." Another woman, Karina Mendez, sells bacon-wrapped hot dogs with her husband to make ends meet. "We need to pay our bills, so we're trying to make some extra money," she said. "And if I think about it, I make more money here selling hot dogs than at my clothing store."

The blue corn quesadilla lady of Echo Park

The blue corn quesadilla lady of Echo Park. [Photo: Lucas Peterson]

The benefits of legalized street vending would be manifold: vendors cycle hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy every year — an untapped source of tax revenue. Rudy Espinoza of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network estimates that $47 million in tax revenue could be reaped annually, were a proper legal framework put into place. Consumer health (frequently an argument used by those who are against legalized vending) would inevitably be improved by having street vendors comply with county health regulations. Vendors' quality of life would be improved, also. In addition to no longer having to operate in secret, they would no longer be targets of local gangs and criminals, many of whom extort protection money from vendors.

Street food vendors have been an essential part of L.A.'s cultural fabric since as far back as the late 1800s when horse-drawn tamale wagons (the original food trucks) rolled through the streets of downtown. In the 1930s, the car culture began to swallow urban life, and motorists demanded that vendors be removed from city streets; politicians buckled and banned sidewalk vending in downtown and major commercial zones. In 1974, Mayor Tom Bradley vetoed a measure proposed by the City Council to outright ban street vending in the city, saying: "I believe we need to encourage, not discourage, the creation of new small-business enterprises, without which upward mobility on the socioeconomic ladder would become that much more difficult." In 1980, however, the ban was pushed through, outlawing all street vending. There have been efforts to modify or repeal the ban, but it has now stood firm for 35 years.

This is where the confusion lies, however. The top hit from Googling "street vending law Los Angeles" is the website of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, and something called the "Street Vending Compliance Program." A glance at it would seem to indicate that legal street vending is, in fact, a reality:

L.A. County Health Department

[Screengrab: L.A. County Health Department website]

Calls to the county gave me the same impression. I asked, specifically, whether street vending in Los Angeles was illegal. "Oh, it's legal," said the employee who handled my call. "You just need a permit. I'll transfer you," she said, jettisoning me to a dead-end extension.

So... is it legal, or not? "No, it is not legal," said Diana Yedoyan, Legislative and Field Deputy from the office of L.A. City Councilman José Huizar. "Street vending is illegal in every part of the city," she explained. Using a public right-of-way or public sidewalk for private business purposes, even if it's just selling churros or sunglasses, is not allowed in L.A. I told her what I found on Department of Public Health's website and she said, "Well, I don't know about that. That's the county; that's different. In the City of Los Angeles, street vending is illegal."

So the city is one entity; the county health department is another. They have their own rules and regulations, and they don't particularly concern themselves with what the other one does. The health department has its own set of regulations for becoming a "licensed" street vendor. The city, however, doesn't operate by that set of rules, and can still cite a vendor who is operating on a city sidewalk, whether permitted or not.


Original 2013 motion filed by L.A. City Councilmen Jose Huizar and Curren Price

Councilman Huizar and Councilman Curren Price are leading the charge on behalf of street vendors' rights and have been fairly successful lately in turning the tide in favor of legalization. The above motion, filed in November 2013 by Huizar and Price, called for a report "within 90 days" on recommendations for regulation that could lead to legalized street vending. It's been quite a bit longer than 90 days, but Huizar and Price might finally be getting their report. There will be a series of meetings in the coming months to push toward further regulation.

Organizations such as the East LA Community Corporation and the Los Angeles Food Policy Council have been vehement proponents of legalized vending. Even if a path to legalization is created, it will be quite a feat to get 50,000 vendors to simultaneously fall in line with a new set of laws. Vendors will still have to comply with health department regulations, which will require food vendors to prepare food in commercial kitchens — a cost that is likely to be prohibitive for many.

It is time, nonetheless, to undo an antiquated, nonsensical law that has turned tens of thousands of hardworking Los Angelenos into unintentional criminals. Political inertia, at this point, is the primary culprit. The fact is that, after 35 years, it's difficult to build the required momentum to change the law from within the L.A. political machine. Maintaining the status quo, however, is now damaging the city: Legalization would only be a boon to public health and safety, the city's economy, and the quality of life of vendors. They should have legal protection and not have to constantly fear reprisal, nor should they have to hide and work in secrecy. They should be celebrated, recognized for their good work, and be able to proudly assume their rightful place as one of the greatest and most essential aspects of Angeleno culture.