Fan of street cart fruit? CA vendors gain clearer path to legal permits

Two customers check out goods from a food cart selling fruit, chips, and cold drinks on the Santa Monica pier. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law that gives vendors a clearer path to operating legally. Photo by Amy Ta.

You’ve seen the pop up-taco spots, the people selling ice cream on beaches, the fruit carts offering juicy watermelon and mangoes on a hot summer day. But did you know most of those vendors are not operating legally? 

That's because even though the state of California said in 2018 that you could sell on the sidewalk, the health codes and food regulations were so complicated, most vendors couldn’t get permits. These folks scored a big legislative win on September 23 when Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 972, which gives vendors a much clearer path to operating legally.

Mérlin Alvarado, who’s spent eight years selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs in Hollywood, welcomes the news. She says a true path to having a legal operation felt impossible three years ago because “we were persecuted by the police, harassed. … I mean, it's something out of our imagination.”

Alvarado lobbied in Sacramento and helped write the bill as part of the grassroots effort to make this legislation a reality. KCRW speaks with Alvarado and other supporters of this bill to see what the new law will mean.

The law to legalize street vending in 2018 required a fix, which just passed and the governor signed. What wasn’t working? 

Without the new law, the state requires things that just don’t make sense for food vendors.

Take standards for food carts. In 2021, UCLA Law and the public interest law firm Public Counsel published a blueprint for a sidewalk cart that would meet the 2018 guidelines, and they reported it would weigh more than 1,200 pounds and be over 16 feet long. It wasn’t feasible for pushing along sidewalks or fitting on a sidewalk and it cost about $10,000.

Doug Smith, a senior attorney at Public Counsel who represents street vendors, heard from his clients that they were unable to get permits. In Los Angeles alone, there are around 10,000 vendors and only about 200 permitted, according to UCLA.

Many of these vendors are undocumented and vulnerable to extortion or exploitation. For a vendor living on the financial edge, a ticket for operating without a permit could be devastating. In one case in San Bernardino County, according to the UCLA report, a citation escalated until the vendor was deported.

How does the new law address these issues?

The legislation streamlines the permit process. Cart requirements are more reasonable, and vendors that sell fruit can now slice produce on site and taco carts can reheat food. Also, vendors that need commissary kitchen space for preparations can now use places like churches and schools instead of having to rent out parts of a professional kitchen. Most importantly, by allowing vendors to operate legally, it welcomes these workers into the formal economy. 

Alvarado says she will finally be able to do everything by the book, which is what she’s always wanted. And this will affect her whole family too, who are all originally from Honduras. “We are a very important workforce, and behind every street vendor on every corner, there's a family that survives from the sale of the tamales, from the sale of the hot dogs, from the sale of the fruit,” she says.

The law goes into effect January 1, 2023, and the regulations are expected to be fully updated by 2024.

What role did street vendors play in writing the new law?

Unlike the 2018 law, this one was written with input from the people it affects.

Lonette Robinson speaks before the State Assembly’s Health Committee in June to share her experience working as a vendor. Robinson has run her sweet ice business for four years. Photo courtesy of California State Assembly.

One of these vendors was Lonette Robinson, who owns and operates a mobile shaved-ice business in Rancho Cucamonga and Leimert Park. Her parents immigrated from Guyana, and the sweet ice she sells is a favorite childhood treat there. She made three trips to Sacramento to talk to legislators, and testified before the State Assembly’s Committee on Health this summer. 

Street vendors delivered more than 700 letters of support for SB 972 to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Los Angeles office. The governor has now signed the bill, which removes barriers that prevent most street food vendors from operating legally. Photo courtesy of Inclusive Action for the City.

She and the other activists knocked on the doors of senators' offices to try to get them to vote for this bill. And she says it was nerve wracking, but then by day four, “It's like, okay, okay. I have the swing of this,” says Robinson.

She also appreciated the solidarity between a small group of vendors like herself who identify as Black, with others who were predominantly Latino. They spent time together after lobbying and found ways to communicate despite language barriers. 

“I'm at a loss of words to explain how overwhelmingly awesome this feeling is, to be able to represent a group of people,” says Robinson. “I feel like the representation is not just Black, and it's not just woman, and it's not just street vendor. It's all of the above.”