Is LA Ready For New Street Vending Rules?

Taquero Walter Soto holds up a large flour tortilla at his taco cart El Ruso in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Cesar Hernandez)

Walter Soto makes flour tortilla tacos in a large street cart stationed in a Boyle Heights alley. He began his micro-business four years ago by renting an expensive state-approved food cart.

"I do everything by the book," Soto told me in Spanish. He pointed proudly at his L.A. County health permit that cost him nearly $800, his L.A. city business license and his state seller's permit.

I met Soto on a Tuesday morning about two weeks before New Year's Eve at Soto's popular taco cart El Ruso. Already he was nearly sold out of his Sonora-inspired tacos — and blissfully unaware that in a few short weeks, he'd be required by the City of Los Angeles to purchase a new street vendor permit.

Then I told him.

"Wait. For who?" he asked. "People that don't have these, or even if I have these? Does this apply to me?"

It does. Starting Jan. 1, every L.A. street vendor of tacos, pupusas, hot chicken sandwiches, even clothes, or anything really, will have to buy a permit or eventually face fines. It's a new rule that city leaders voted in a little over a year ago. It undoes nearly 100 years of bans on street vending in a city famous for its street food.

Despite all that, almost no one directly impacted by the new rule seems to know much about it. According to Rudy Espinoza, one of the leading voices in the campaign to legalize street vendors, that's because "the street permit system is not ready."

I spoke with Espinoza a few weeks before the looming deadline at his Boyle Heights nonprofit, Inclusive Action for the City. He was just returning from a meeting at City Hall and seemed exasperated.

"If you and I go out on the street right now and talk to a street vendor and say, 'Hey, do you know where to get your permit Jan. 1, 2020? I bet you they will not know because neither of us know," Espinoza said.

Sonora-style tacos from El Ruso, a food cart in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Cesar Hernandez.)

WHAT THE STREET VENDORS KNOW

I accepted Espinoza's challenge and hit up L.A.'s famed street merchant hot spots to see what the vendors know. What I found were bits of conflicting information and rumors that have trickled out like melted ice from a frutero cart.

Marisela Velasquez has been selling women's and kids' clothing for six years on a sidewalk near Central and 42nd, where dozens of vendors pop up each day just blocks away from LAPD's Newton Community Police Station.

"I have no idea how much the permit will cost but it's expensive, supposedly," Velasquez told me. "But I hear you get it at City Hall, at least that's what everyone around here thinks."

She's right about the cost of the city permit. At $541, it is one of the most expensive such permits in the country. But she's wrong about where to get them. The permits are being handled by the Bureau of Street Services, known as StreetsLA, located on South Broadway in downtown L.A. That's where vendors can go apply for them starting Jan. 2.

But the little information Velasquez does have is more than any other vendor I spoke to in Boyle Heights, East L.A., or the Piñata District.

After meeting Velasquez, I went to Glassell Park, where I stood in a parking lot and watched three people unload what is essentially a mobile sit-down taqueria from a Bobtail. They brought out giant vats of guacamole, propane tanks, several tables, chairs, and all the ingredients to make some of the best street tacos north of Dodger Stadium.

This is one of several Pablito's Tacos locations. Pablito's is owned by Danny Rodriguez, a young restaurateur who got into the street vending scene when the state of California decriminalized it in the fall of 2018.

Rodriguez's taco stands make a Tijuana-Peruvian hybrid that quickly became so popular, he expanded into multiple locations, each growing in size along with its popularity. The fact that the stands are now basically little mobile restaurants has angered a group of restaurant owners in the San Fernando Valley, who say he is taking advantage of a system set up for street vendors' tiny businesses.

But Rodriguez hasn't slowed down. He credits his food game acumen to his past as a restaurant owner.

"I'm ready for 2020," Rodriguez told me in the middle of running around trying to finalize plans for the new regulations. According to Rodriguez, he's been planning for the new street vendor rules for a year now. First, he upgraded some of his small carts to taco trucks. Then he began making plans to open the first Pablito's Tacos brick-and-mortar, which opened in late December.

Olvera Street Vendor, 1938. (Via the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

But Rodriguez doesn't want to lose the appeal of the street cart.

"There's something more enticing about having a stand," he said. "People like to have that connection with the lady that's making the tortillas. And the guy making your tacos right there in front of you."

But even an experienced businessman like Rodriguez seems unaware he needs a new permit to get his remaining stands street legal. "I mean, we already have two out of three," he told me. "We have our seller's permit. We have our business license. So it's just about the health department one."

He didn't know about the fourth one, the new L.A. city permit.

After I told him, he paused for a second then said, "I guess I'm going to have to raise the price of tacos a little bit. I mean, I guess. I don't know, to be honest. I think I'm okay with my seller's permit, and if not, we'll just close the carts. It doesn't make sense to keep them going if it gets too expensive."

According to business development expert Ivette Vivanco, "there's a lot of confusion going around."

Vivanco is co-chair of economic development at Friends of the Family, a nonprofit community advocacy group that's been working to get the word out to street vendors about the new rule. She said the efforts have seen mixed results.

(James Bernal for LAist)

"I think that they [the vendors] understand that they have to get the permits, and there's going to be more inspection, that there's going to be entities watching them and checking up on their carts," Vivanco told me. "But I don't think that they know what they have to do to get their permits, what it is the permit [going to] look like, where [to] go get it."

THE INFORMATION BOTTLENECK

Isela Gracian is president of the East LA Community Corporation and she's spent most of November and December meeting with city officials on behalf of the street vendors. She said all the confusion stems from a lack of information coming from the city.

"They don't have the infrastructure completed yet," Gracian explained.

The city typically relies on groups like ELACC, Friends of the Family, and Inclusive Action to get information out to the street vending community. But so far, that hasn't been the case, said Yolie Anguiano, Friends of the Family's economic development coordinator.

"No one from the city's talking to us about this," Anguiano said, "so I don't think we're ready for January first. I think there's a lot more education that has to go out there."

1996: A hot dog vendor has parked his truck along Figueroa Street in downtown, Los Angeles. (Photo by Anthony Friedkin/Los Angeles Neighborhoods Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

THE CITY RESPONSE

With just days to go before the Jan. 1 deadline, I got a return phone call from Adel Hagekhalil, the head of StreetsLA. The city was just announcing a new website with information for vendors — and a six-month grace period.

"The enrollment period of six months is to allow folks to take the time, to work with them. Nobody will get cited if they don't have a permit," Hagekhalil told me. He said the goal is to educate vendors about the new system and that fines are a "last resort."

During the six-month rollout, vendors will be able to buy a permit for $291 and fines will not be imposed. After July 1, 2020, the fee shoots up to the full $541 and vendors who violate permit rules or operate without one could face fines. Hagekhalil said StreetsLA plans to partner with community activist groups to reach vendors, since it's unlikely they will read the new website.

Hagekhalil said the information bottleneck was a result of last-minute changes in City Council. The final details weren't approved until November. He said the rollout grace period was the plan all along.

I called Rudy Espinoza to tell him the news. "They haven't worked on it all year," Espinoza said. "And so now, because the deadline is approaching, they're working really hard to meet that deadline."

Espinoza likened the department's efforts to what he would do when procrastinating on a project.

"I mean, I've totally been there. But in this case, this project impacts thousands of people in L.A. We can't afford to procrastinate on things like this," he said.

Ultimately, Espinoza said he was happy about the grace period. He said he and the other advocates have been lobbying the city for this all along.

But even with six months, there's still a lot to do: The information website for vendors just went up two weeks ago. Permit prices were only approved in the fall. And how some vendors will afford permits is still a question.

Back on the streets of South Los Angeles, Marisela Velasquez said she got her information from police officers who stopped by. At first, she thought it was a crackdown. But they told her she'd have to get a permit soon.

Velasquez called the news good and bad. Bad because the new rules will limit her sidewalk space. Vendors will need to follow strict guidelines as to where they set up. But also good, she said, because with a city permit — along with the other requirements she'll have to meet — at least she won't be fined.

Meanwhile for taqueros, fruteros and thousands of vendors that feed and clothe L.A., a new day is here, even if they don't know it yet.