‘Tacos will prevail’: How LA’s street vendors persevere in the time of COVID

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A street vendor serves bacon-wrapped hotdogs at an LA protest. “Street vendors are still out there, and they're trying their hardest, given the conditions,” says LA Taco’s Javier Cabral. Photo by Daniel Suarez.

We’ve heard a lot about the impact the pandemic has had on restaurants — and the challenges of adjusting to the new curfews and health orders.  That’s true for independent eateries that don’t have a corporate parent to back them up. And it’s especially true when you depend on crowds, big events, and public gatherings for your customers  — like your favorite bacon-wrapped hot dog stand. 

A rich and uniquely local part of LA’s food scene are its street vendors — carts and stands operated by one or two entrepreneurs, perhaps with their families. 

Javier Cabral is the editor of LA Taco and associate producer of "The Taco Chronicles" on Netflix. He says the pandemic struck street vendors hard early on, but many are finding a way to survive or even thrive. “NO matter what, tacos will prevail,” he says. 

Cabral spoke with KCRW’s Chery Glaser about the perseverance of street vendors. 

Javier Cabral : In our local media and national media, the talk has been how the pandemic is affecting restaurants and brick-and-mortars. Street food is integral in the DNA of LA; street vendors will always prevail. You can't hold them down. There aren't as many large gatherings [now]. For example, back in the day, you would go to a Laker game or a Dodger game, and after that you would be assaulted by an army of bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors. Those things, they're not occurring any more. Street vendors are still out there, and they're trying their hardest, given the conditions.

When LA offered flexibilities for brick and mortar for their al fresco dining, says Cabral, they did not include street vendors. Photo by Evan George/KCRW. 

KCRW: Are they still going out every day? Are they hitting the streets to find customers? And if so, how much business? How are they doing compared to a normal day, pre-pandemic?

Cabral : If you think about it, what are the big gatherings these days? There are protests in the name of racial recognition, you know, for Black Lives Matter. We had a reporter who noticed that a couple of street vendors were actually starting to join these protesters and offer bacon wrapped hot dogs at these protests. So yes, they're still going out there and just making do with whatever they can get. And they're relatively young street vendors. I mean, the ones that we featured on the site and the article, I think there were in their early 20s, or even late teens. They're mostly immigrants and mostly the children of immigrants, and they're trying to help their family get by these days.

KCRW: At the same time, this is not an environment where you can put up plexiglass screens or enforce social distancing very easily. The vendors you talk to, are they worried about getting COVID?

Cabral: Yes, the worry is always gonna be there. But the reality is that if you're faced  with a hungry family, and what the looming rent coming, I think you have no choice.

KCRW: Complicating things, the city of Los Angeles only recently started legalizing street vending and implementing a permit system for street vendors. And now vendors who serve food also have to get a new County Health permit as well, because of the pandemic. What does it take to get these permits? And how is that all going?

Cabral: This was supposed to be a monumental year for street vending in Los Angeles. January 2020 was the first day that street food was actually legalized, and that took over a decade of non-stop campaigning by multiple organizations who were out there working with street vendors and organizing them. It's tough, it's really hard. There [are] a lot of language barriers, there [are] a lot of education barriers. If you go around and ask a street vendor, 'would you be up for becoming a legalized vendor with the permit?' The chances are, they're gonna say yes, because they want to; they want to work with the system; they want to be active, and not have to worry about getting arrested or even deported, if they get caught by the police. Because nowadays, during COVID, you're seeing multiple other restaurateurs, or employees, or line cooks who used to work in kitchens, but they're not working there anymore. So they're all pivoting to street food, or what I call DM-only Instagram food, which is food and dishes that you can find only by requesting a via DM on Instagram. And there's all this demand to become a permanent street vendor. You even have highly educated people who don't know the bureaucratic ways around how to get a street vending permit, which is the problem.

“Who is this legalized street vending permit supposed to serve, the street vendors or the city,” asks LA Taco’s Javier Cabral. Photo by Evan George/KCRW.

KCRW: So not only are they trying to make their way through that sort of bureaucracy, but they're also facing new competition from folks who may be better financed than they are.

Cabral:  Exactly. And you know, and that's it really is a free-for-all, I call it the great pivot to you're either making pizzas, tacos, or fried chicken sandwiches, those are like the failsafe foods. You're seeing a lot of line cooks, they're doing home homemade versions, and they're selling it. It gets really complicated. 

But the reality is that LA needs to invest into education programs to work with street vendors and bilingual programs, to be able to show them how to become legal and how to acquire these permits and guide them to the process. And one of our reports that we published when LA issued its first street vending permit, the fact was uncovered that the city spent much more money on the enforcement so they hired more people to go out there in the street and enforce and get tickets than they did to for the actual education process. So it really begs the question: who is this legalized street vending permit supposed to serve, the street vendors or the city?

KCRW: Some businesses have been able to qualify for federal aid during the pandemic. But early on that wasn't the case for street vendors. This fall, the LA City Council voted to use $6 million in federal CARES Act funding to help vendors get the equipment and permits they need to comply with local laws. Is that money getting where it needs to go?

Cabral:  There's a big factor of fear or there's another factor of pride. A lot of these street vendors are out there in the streets hustling every day, morning and night because they don't want a handout. They don't want to have any kind of assistance. And the other factor is that it's tough for them to know that this assistance is available. You know, I do commend one individual who has been working tirelessly as perhaps LA's most vocal and active street vending activists and enthusiasts. His name is Rudy Espinosa, he is the director of Inclusive Action LA. And he works with street vendors, you know, in Spanish and English, to inform street vendors that there is money and help available and he's a guy on the street who is really, really making a difference.

KCRW: Is there a street vendor or a food truck owner you've been talking to who's just really struck home to you where you're like, you know, this story kind of encapsulates what's going on here.

Cabral: So I live here in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in northeast LA. And two nights ago, I was walking my dogs and you know, out of nowhere I noticed these lights, you know, these flickering lights on the corner of my eye down on Figueroa Street between Avenue 54 and Avenue 55 and I walked closer to it. And it turns out there was a brand new carne asada, like a Tijuana-style taco vendor that has popped up there. I don't know,it made me a little bit emotional because you know, here we are doing a pandemic. Here we are, when the mayor of LA unfurled its flexibilities for brick and mortar for their al fresco dining. The reality is he did not mention or he did not include street vendor flexibilities. After all this, you see this immigrant family who didn't care and they propped up an entire new taco operation in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic in LA. And I stood there for a few minutes and I saw people, they stopped their cars and they supported him and they bought tacos from his family. So it made me really emotional just to see that no matter what, tacos will prevail, street vendors will prevail because even if they get no help by the city, they're still going to be there.



Chery Glaser