Los Angeles issues its first street vending permit
Photo via Greg Spotts

LOS ANGELES—What started as a group of women organizing for their right to sell in the streets of Boyle Heights in 2008 after getting harassed by the police for doing so culminated on January 2, when the City of Los Angeles issued its first permit to legally sell goods in the streets of Los Angeles.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of food culture in Los Angeles.

“Ten years of organizing. I am in tears,” tweets Carla De Paz, an organizer with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation. Her organization was among the leaders in the movement toward the complete decriminalization and legalization of street vending in the city, along with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Inclusive Action for the City (formerly known as LURN), and Public Counsel, with the assistance of CHIRLA.

Working together, they paved the way for the marginalized immigrant and elderly communities of L.A.—that make up the majority of street vendors—to finally be able to go to work every day without the fear of having their gear confiscated, getting fined, arrested, and even deported. They’ve tracked their painstaking progress through the LA Street Vendor Campaign over the last decade.

“We just wanted to make sure that the city knew that this type of work shouldn’t be a crime,” De Paz tells L.A. Taco over a phone call.

The first step was decriminalization, which seemed more crucial than ever with the election of Donald Trump. The official decriminalization happened in 2017 and that reached statewide level through the efforts of State Senator Ricardo Lara, informs De Paz. Street food was legalized on January 1, 2019, but there was no official permit to obtain. This created a limbo period in L.A. street vending, which explains why the streets of Los Angeles seemingly exploded with new street vendors last year.

But that limbo period is now officially over. L.A.’s Bureau of Street Services has hired 24 new employees whose only task will be to patrol the streets of Los Angeles for vendors and make sure they are in compliance with the freshly established law. L.A. Taco witnessed one of the test runs of this new Street Vending Task Force in Highland Park in October of 2019, where a group of five men wearing khaki pants, a black polo shirt, and baseball caps donning the L.A. city seal were seen removing a taco vendor from Figueroa Street. They were in an unmarked white minivan.

However, as Erick Galindo of LAist reports, it is worth noting that vendors won’t be fined criminal charges at first. Although L.A. Taco did confirm with Chief Gary Harris, the Division Manager of the Bureau of Street Services, that it will ultimately be up to his “officers’ discretion” to decide when to fine or not—especially with repeat offenders. He informs L.A. Taco that the civil fine will start at $250 and be capped at a maximum of $1,000, as many times as needed.

This investment in enforcement rather than vendor education and outreach has drawn criticism from some, like De Paz. “There is a big disparity between the budget in the millions of dollars for enforcement versus the budget the city is spending on education, which is $350,000. What is the city prioritizing? This is a terrible approach.”

Other complications in the legalization of street food involve the County not moving as fast as the city with their permit process, because most taco carts and grills that vendors use are out of compliance with their current standards. De Paz also informs L.A. Taco that while some grill manufacturers are willing to work with the county to build accordingly to meet permit requirements, there is a fear of monopolization of city-legal grill carts. This could result in pricing out the vendors who rely on grills as their primary tool in the workplace.

But perhaps the biggest issue comes from the brick and mortar business owners who feel threatened by what they argue as being a lack of equality when it comes to the higher accumulated costs of running a restaurant versus a food stand: permit fees, rent overhead, and insurance obligations.

The most vocal group, the So-Cal Restaurant Association.Org, made up of mostly Latinos, have shown up to City Hall meetings to voice their opposition to street vending legalization. On their Facebook page, the admin posts voyeuristic close-up shots of street food vendors allegedly performing activities such as accepting cash with the same hand they cook with or food vendors dumping used oil in the street. One post lists every single L.A. councilmember’s office number with a call to action: “Don’t allow these Mobile Restaurants to get away pretending to be our VENDORS.” It is interesting to note that while the concern is valid, studies have shown that the type of consumer most likely to stop for street food is not the same type of consumer that will stop at a restaurant for a meal.

Regardless of all of this, street food is now legal.

As of the time of publishing, the process to be a legal street vendor in Los Angeles involves obtaining a state sellers permit and a Business License with the City of L.A., both of which are free of cost. And now, for the first time ever, a Street Vending permit which can be applied for online and processed in person at the Department of Public Works building in downtown. The permit for now until July will cost you $291; after that it will go for $541. If you sell food, it will be slightly more complicated as the County catches up and finalizes their protocols, but for now, you can apply for a provisional permit obtainable through the same application process. There is also a movement to provide lower-cost options to elderly and low-income residents who would like to apply for a street vending permit.

If you are a person curious to open your own street food business, De Paz can’t stress enough the importance of getting involved with the work around advocacy and organizing for street food rights.

“There is always a constant threat that all of this can go away,” De Paz says. She informs of a new motion set forth by councilmember John Lee to see if the State will bring back criminal charges to street vending crimes.

Street Vendor May Day 2018. Photo courtesy of Carla De Paz

“There is a need for folks to stay involved, understand street vending culture, and be a part of the network.”

She advises brick and mortar restaurant owners who may have issues to reach out to the vendors and try to talk to them or to advocates like De Paz, who have brokered communications between street vendors and brick and mortar restaurants in the past.

“Instead of attacking each other, it should be, how do we support and help each other? We have done cross-promotions with both types of food businesses in the past. You will get to the solution of your problem a lot quicker if you reach out to vendors or us first as opposed to badmouthing online or showing up to City Hall trying to prove that street vendors are bad people.”

As for consumers, since technically L.A. County laws have not caught up with the legalization process, documenting street vending is still considered a “tricky” area. Whether you are a journalist or just a person who likes to post about the food you eat on Instagram, De Paz would like to remind us all “to always be respectful and kindly ask before posting the location.”

“If you are a fan of street food, I ask consumers to be involved and let your local councilmember know that this is something you support. Sending a letter or being vocal with your support goes a long way.”

Reposted from L.A. Taco by permission. The original publication, with more photos and comments, can be viewed here.


Javier Cabral
Javier Cabral

Just a vato loco from East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley reporting on food culture and punk rock since 2005. Editor of "L.A. Taco" and Associate Producer of "Las Cronicas del Taco" on Netflix.