It’s an early Saturday morning, and Patrick Fernandez is taking out tables, several bags of ice, plates and several containers with seafood from a small trailer attached to his truck.
He sets them up on a specifically designed serving table near the corner of Polk Street and San Fernando Road in Sylmar. Soon, customers start trickling in.
Fernandez has been selling ceviche, chili shrimp and shrimp cocktails at this site for a couple of years. He is one of the approximately 50,000 street vendors offering food and other products on City of Los Angeles sidewalks.
This underground economy has previously been considered illegal. But after years of marches, protests and activism, Los Angeles officials are starting to issue permits to conduct business. The annual permits cost $291 if obtained before June 30, 2020; $541 after that.
“The cost is definitely out of reach of some street vendors,” complained Isela Gracian, president of East LA Community Corporation, one of the groups that has been advocating for the permits.
But some vendors say they have no problem with the permits or the cost.
“I’ll comply,” says Fernandez. “I’m all for it.”
Still, he notes that not every vendor will do so after years of selling on the streets without permits.
“I know people out there are not going to comply,” said the 56-year-old vendor, who has a regular weekday job as a custom car painter.
“From all these years of selling (illegally), many are not going to get a permit. Enforcing it’s going to be hard.”
One problem with the new measure, Gracian said, is that few street vendors know what the process is to obtain the permits, and the city of Los Angeles is not ready for the onslaught of applications.
“The biggest worry is that [on] Jan. 1, people won’t know where to go,” she said.
LA officials have developed a website (https://streetsla.lacity.org/vending) with information on how to obtain a permit.
Street vendors must first get a Business Tax Registration form from the city’s Office of Finance and a state seller’s permit from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration. Those vendors selling merchandise and products other than tangible personal property, even temporarily, are generally required to pay a sales tax.
The new regulations mean street vendors must also pay taxes on their sales, but it’s unclear how they’ll account for their cash transactions. Those vendors who lack a Social Security number can pay taxes by obtaining an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN).
Those who sell food, like Fernandez, must also obtain a LA County Public Health permit.
This last step may be problematic for a lot of vendors, Fernandez said.
“We’re a clean spot,” said the man who used to own a restaurant in Santa Clarita. “But there are a lot of vendors who are really dirty. It’s hard. You need to know what you’re doing.”
To make sure the seafood he sells is fresh while his stand is open, Fernandez hauls in several bags of ice.
“It has to be cold. The ice keeps everything cold. I bring extra bags of ice,” he said.
Another vendor, Francisco Canela — who also has a regular construction job — recently set up a taco stand next to Fernandez’ seafood spot. After years of doing “taquizas” and offering his food for private events, Canela is trying to see if street vending brings in enough money to feed his family.
“I like the idea (of the permits),” said Canela who, like Fernandez, had no idea of the process to get one, but is open to try to get it. “I don’t think the cost is too much. If you can sell, you can make money.”
He adds the permits “give the opportunity to make something, to have your own business.”
But he also thinks that opportunity would mean more competition, more street vendors.
“People are not going to be so fearful of going out to sell,” Canela said.
That is also a concern for many restaurants and small businesses, who have vehemently opposed the decriminalization of street vendors, whom they see as unfair competition. Recently, restaurants owners aligned under a group calling itself the SoCal Restaurant Association denounced the new law as it put people in danger of consuming contaminated food.
“Our kitchens are clean, we abide by the laws of food safety and handling so no one will become ill. We protect the food that we serve to you,” said Vivian Hartman, owner of Sylmar café-barbecue restaurant Buffalo Bruce’s Mercantile. “We care about the food you eat, about the public health and safety.”
Buffalo Bruce’s Mercantile, which already had limited hours, has remained closed for several months.
“We have an illegally operating offshoot of unsanctioned, unpermitted restaurants operating under tents using tanks of gas and propane creating a fire danger that may contaminate the food you eat because they’re operating without health and safety permits,” Hartman said.
“They are serving food that could be cross contaminated not having water to wash their hands and equipment they use. The food you’re eating at these establishments may not be safe,” Hartman said, during a recent press conference.
The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol did not witness places to wash their hands at the street vending sites it visited.
“We are also dealing with the unfair business competition created by SB 946, and this is causing financial stress to restaurants,” Hartman said.
Hartman is encouraging LA officials to “hire more inspectors to regulate the illegal activity of these restaurants that are camping in front of our restaurants under tents without a food license to handle the food that you eat.”
On the other hand, Enrique Mendoza — who bought some fish tostadas from Fernandez— argues that everyone has the right to make a living.
“That’s why we came here, to try to make something,” he said.
“If everything is legal, why shouldn’t they be allowed to sell. One has more options of where to shop.”
Some of the Restrictions
While the law allows for selling on almost every street and park in City of Los Angeles, there are still restrictions.
Street vendors are not allowed near large venues like the Staples Center, Los Angeles Coliseum or the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the Hollywood Entertainment Business Improvement District argues that vendors create a safety hazard in an already overcrowded area full of tourists and ongoing events.
Also, there will be a two vendor per acre rule in city parks.
City authorities have said they will give street vendors a grace period to get permits before they start enforcing the new law.
The Bureau of Street Services and Los Angeles Police Department will be in charge of enforcing the measure and restrictions. Fines will go from $250 for the first offense to $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third.
“They have to enforce it,” says Fernandez. “But if it’s a fine, it’s not criminal, some people are just going to pay (and keep selling),” Fernandez said.
“What are they going to do, stop selling? I don’t think so.”
More information about obtaining a city permit is available at: 1055 Wilshire Blvd. #900-B, Los Ángeles, California 90017, or by calling (213) 353-9400. Here are some other links to websites with information:
You can apply for the permit at: StreetsLA Investigation and Enforcement Division, 1149 S. Broadway St., 3rd floor, Suite 350 Los Angeles, CA 90015. Office: (213) 847-6000.