As L.A.'s Illegal Street Vendors Peddle, Licensed Businesses Struggle To Stay Afloat
“I LOVE YOU, TACO PEREZ, I love you so much,” writes one Yelp reviewer. “I never really liked Mexican food, but Tacos Perez is my go-to place whenever I'm craving an amazingly delicious taco, burrito, or torta.”
A licensed establishment in South Los Angeles, Taco Perez has received many stamps of approval. The review above is just one of nine on its Yelp page, all of which rave about its excellent Mexican dishes.
Taco Perez is a veritable restaurant on wheels. Parked next to Ralph’s on Vermont Avenue and Adams Boulevard, it is one of nearly 16,000 licensed food trucks operating in Los Angeles County. But like many of them, it is struggling to stay afloat.
Fredric Perez, a Hispanic man in his late forties, says this is his family business’ fifth year serving Los Angeles. He has taken the legal route since the start; he has obtained a business license, a food handler’s permit, a county Public Health Department permit and vehicle registration, among other requirements. He has a collage of five county health permit stickers on the back of his truck to prove it.
He says he also pays his taxes and upkeeps the quality of his facilities as required by law.
However, being a law-abiding businessman comes with quite a price tag.
Monthly costs of maintaining the food truck total up to $1,000 a month, Perez explains. This includes a hefty commissary fee for getting his truck cleaned daily and storing it overnight, his vehicle registration, as well as the annual $600 county health permit and his business license.
Taco Perez operates after hours from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. several times a week. He declined to disclose how much money he earns from the truck, but he makes one thing clear: “I make no profit from my truck,” Perez acknowledges. “I lose money every month.”
But he refuses to throw in the towel. Taco Perez is something to show for himself, he says; it is his own business. This is a matter of pride.
To make ends meet, Perez has no choice but to work as a parking attendant during the day.
“I have to have another job because I have to pay my bills and pay all the fees for the truck,” he says.
He pays these fees while some rivals do not; and understandably, Perez is irked by the presence of unlicensed street vendors close to his turf. Their exact locations roll off his tongue: “Just down this street right now, there’s one on 29th. There’s another one just a few blocks up this street.”
“It’s not fair,” he adds. “All their profit goes right in their pockets. I’m doing the right thing but they’re making more money than I am.”
Perez says he has lost several regular customers to these illegal vendors, even though they fail to meet crucial health and sanitation standards.
“You go over there and see the difference,” he suggests. “No hot water. No refrigerator.”
Just as Perez said, a small dirty truck is selling “dirty dogs” in a dark corner on 29th Street. Jésus Hot Dogs, it is called.
Sure enough, the truck has neither the required refrigerator nor sink.
The air on 29th Street is dense with the greasy aroma of grilled onions, peppers and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Standing next to the grill outside is Jésus, the owner, who chops onions in complete darkness save for the faint orange light from a street lamp overhead.
Jésus stores perishable foods in a compact icebox that sits in the back of the truck. There is no running water of any sort. This breaks two of the most basic requirements issued by county health officials. In addition, the Department of Environmental Health prohibits the sale of grilled bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Yet, curiously enough, a yellow county health permit adorns the bottom right corner of the truck’s back window. Jésus, who speaks close to no English, could not explain how he obtained the permit.
Perez complains that while illegitimate street vendors like Jésus continue to steal his customers, law enforcement officers turn a blind eye, perhaps out of convenience.
“[Cops] just drive by,” Perez says. “There’s no way they don’t see it, but they don’t do anything about it.”
This story is the third part of a three part series on Los Angeles' illegal street vendors. Read more here.