L.A. County Health Regulations Don't Deter Illegal Street Vendors
On this particular Saturday afternoon, 33-year-old Natalia Kellix is casually breaking several laws.
Clad in a green tie-dye tank top, a well-worn black apron and a Blackberry half-tucked into her bra, the Guatemala native and mother of four busily chops onions, then pours them onto a heated metal platter.
Using a greasy metallic spatula, she grills them with an assortment of green and red peppers, browning the mixture to perfection. There are also two rows of bacon strips and hot dog sausages, sizzling loudly and spewing grease.
Set up outside at the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street, Kellix and two other “dirty dog” vendors await the next wave of potential customers to return from the football game at the Coliseum.
“I sell these hot dogs for five years now,” she says.
What Kellix may or may not know is that the sale of dirty dogs—the classic grilled bacon-wrapped hot dogs that locals have dubbed as ‘heart-attack dogs’—is forbidden by the Los Angeles County Environmental Health Department. Under its regulations, vendors can only cook hot dogs by boiling or steaming them.
In addition, her red plastic pushcart does not display the required sticker bearing the Los Angeles County Health Department’s authorization. Nor does she have a business license.
All these factors make her one of roughly 15,000 illegal street vendors in L.A. County. However, for those like Kellix, there is no simple route to becoming a properly licensed street vendor.
Street vendors must acquire a business license as well as an L.A. County health inspection and permit, which can cost up to $695 and must be renewed annually.
They must also pass the food safety certification exam, which costs $60.
While the process of acquiring proper licensing can be a giant hurdle in itself — or even an impossible task for immigrant vendors without proper documentation — other factors serve as obstacles to meeting the requirements.
“[To get a health permit], I need big cart, almost $10,000,” Kellix acknowledges. “I don’t have money for this.”
The big cart she speaks of is the Cushman utility cart, the only brand approved by the health department. Kellix’s seemingly outrageous estimation is no exaggeration: the retail price for a Cushman cart is listed between $8,000 and $10,000. On the other hand, a simple makeshift pushcart like Kellix’s ranges around $150.
These stand as heavy financial hurdles for street vendors like Kellix, who says she lives day-to-day on a daily income of $100 on average to $400 on game days.
Under regulations issued by the State of California, each pushcart is also required have a three-basin sink with running water and a foot of drain board on either side. Carts with grills must have an air filtration system.
However, even complying with this complex checklist of state, county and city regulations may too easily be in vain, says Carl Bergquist, policy advocate at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
In fact, the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) outlaws the operation of pushcarts for commercial use — such as food vending — on sidewalks. However, these policies, muddled in contradictions and exemptions, inevitably confuse “legal” vendors as well as law enforcement officers.
“Vendors who have permits, both a business license and County health permit, can still be cited for offenses,” Bergquist says.
That’s why legal repercussions tend to depend heavily on the discretion exercised by the individual officer, he explains.
“While he or she could just issue a warning and ask them to move along, they can also cite them for a violation of the L.A. City Municipal code,” Bergquist says. Or authorities can confiscate the cart in its entirety.
Each offense ranges anywhere from $25 to $1,000 and is punishable by up to six months in jail, according to the LAMC.
The Los Angeles Police Department is not the only jurisdiction that chases after street vendors.
Terrance Powell, the county health department’s director of specialized surveillance and enforcement, told L.A. Weekly in 2009 that 17 inspectors oversee more than 15,000 licensed mobile food facilities—including food trucks and pushcarts—across the county.
In addition, as part of the department’s Street Vending Program, a team of 11 inspectors investigates public complaints regarding unlicensed street vendors, who number at least 15,000 across the county.
According to Powell, the team conducted 2,300 inspections in 2008, confiscating more than 39,000 pounds of food.
With such an understaffed team overseeing this prolific underground operation, thousands of vendors still operate every day untouched by authorities.
A young Latino woman sells on-the-go bags of fruit at a bus stop outside the 76 gas station on Vermont Avenue and Adams Boulevard. Under a conspicuous rainbow umbrella is a metal cart. Behind its glass display sits an assortment of peeled fruits and vegetables on ice: pineapple, cantaloupe, coconut, watermelon, mango and cucumber. A box of disposable gloves, a half-empty container of Windex, a stack of napkins and an open bag of plastic forks sit atop the cart.
The cart belongs to Caroline, 27, who dons a pink-checkered apron and her hair a loose bun of brown curls. She wears a disposable glove on her left hand.
Although it has been eight years since she immigrated to the States from El Salvador, this is her first job, she says. Up until recently, she stayed at home with her four small children.
Waiting on a customer, she takes the fruits out of the glass case and mechanically chops them on a yellowing cutting board. With a plastic scoop, she stuffs the fruit into a small plastic bag. Next to the cart under a case of trash and old fruit peels, she reaches into a cardboard box and pulls out a lime. She cuts it in half and squeezes it into the bag.
The required sticker from the health department is nowhere to be seen on the cart. Asked about the sticker and her business license, she quickly retorts, both are at home.
“I don’t like to carry it, but I know I have it,” she promises.
Yet, she says she has never come across trouble from police or health department inspectors in her six months as a fruit vendor.
“I am lucky, I think,” she says.
This story is the second part of a three part series on Los Angeles' illegal street vendors. Read the first installment here.
Editor's note: The original version of this article was corrected on 10/26 to reflect that the correct spelling of Carl Berquist's last name is Bergquist.