Los Angeles street food vendors hope new cart design gets approval

On January 4, 1892, politicians in Los Angeles were in the city newspapers complaining about the tamale wagons. Again. “The ‘tamale’ wagons around the corner [street maintenance] The superintendent thinks that should be a thing of the past,” said the Los Angeles Times reported. The wagons scattered throughout downtown were still legal, despite the city council’s best efforts to limit their hours or ban them outright. Permits cost $1 every three months.

Co-published by LA TACO

Nearly 130 years later, tough health codes and brutal enforcement by health inspectors and police continue to plague vendors in the underground economy. But on April 20, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) gave the green light to a new tamale cart designed by Richard Gomez, a food truck engineer who grew up in street vending and worked for years to develop compliant code. sales cart. In approving the 21st century tamale wagon, the DPH made critical concessions on refrigeration, waste and sink requirements, indicating welcome flexibility on health rules that sale advocates accuse of having sabotaged efforts to legalize the sale.

Gomez nearly gave up hope as the county rejected design after design, he told Capital & Main and LA TACO last fall.

“It’s pretty much the ice cream cart you see rolling down the streets,” says a happy Gomez of his design. “It’s like a breakfast cart, for people to grab a quick bite before going to work or dropping their kids off at school.” (The model, sold as Revolution Carts, is available for pre-order in line and on instagram.)

Until the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health approves curb-level cooking and food handling, street vending is essentially illegal.

Gomez’s success bodes well for designers of a county pilot program currently trying to build an affordable, licensed food cart for vendors performing “full food prep,” the ultimate prize for vending advocates. vending machines in the city’s vending machine certification wars. Until the DPH approves curb-level cooking and food handling, street vending is essentially illegal.

The Los Angeles City Council voted legalize street vending in 2018 after lawmakers decriminalized vending at the state level. But for LA vendors preparing food, it has proven virtually impossible to pass health inspection because the state’s health code was written for physical restaurants. The code imposes substantial requirements on sellers with annual incomes of $10,000, such as three-compartment sinks, a hand-washing sink, and refrigeration space.

This fall, Gomez submitted a design for a tamale cart that he thought was sure to pass inspection, but the DPH rejected it, asking him to include space for a microwave to keep the tamales warm. hot.

It was “a bucket of cold water,” Gomez told Capital & Main and LA TACO in a February interview. “It was so much time put into it.”

* * *

The bureaucratic battles on the trolley permits have high stakes for the 10,000 suppliers in Los Angeles. Without approved carts, vendors cannot be licensed, but the DPH continued its enforcement of unauthorized vendors, confiscating food in disastrous raids often carried out in collaboration with law enforcement. The City of Los Angeles suspended its application until next year when the county’s pilot program ends.

The Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit community development and design organization under contract with the county, has submitted its own cart to the Department of Public Health, according to Lyric Kelkar, director of sales policy for Inclusive Action for Purpose. non-profit for the city, which helps the project. Kelkar says they are awaiting revisions from the DPH.

LA County-approved tamale cart design by food truck engineer Richard Gomez.

Gomez’s approved design has no microwaves, no sinks, and can carry 336 tamales in four steamer buckets, each with a capacity of seven dozen. Fiberglass carts are available in a variety of colors, including Dodger Blue and Mexican Flag Dark Green.

As Gomez submitted its designs, the county made its usual requests for three-compartment sinks, storage, and refrigeration, among other requests like microwaves and buckets of sanitizer. “Every one of those things we challenged,” he says. “We went back to the original code and challenged.”

As the Kounkuey Design Initiative finalizes its basket, Inclusive Action for the City is following the same playbook with county officials, according to Kelkar, closely analyzing the state’s health code and advocating for concessions.

According to the National Food Truck Association’s Matt Geller, who fought alongside Gomez to get it approved, the new tamale cart costs “in the range of $7,500.” Some market options for tamale carts exist, but are much larger to accommodate trash cans, sinks, and refrigerators, and cannot be pushed down a curb. They are also more expensive: a tamale cart designed by Kareem Carts, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer, sells for $12,000.

Inclusive Action for the City will offer loans to vendors to acquire the new tamale cart, according to Geller. “Our hope is to be able to get these carts into the hands of vendors without a down payment,” he says.

Street vendor Juana Dominguez had her carts confiscated three times. The loss of her first cart cost her and her husband $3,800.

“The more carts the better, especially if those carts help sellers become legitimate in this industry,” says Sergio Jimenez, an organizer with Community Power Collective, another distributor advocacy nonprofit. . “The cost is, I think, too high to just keep the temperature constant, but maybe with city and county funding, these carts could definitely be used.”

For vendors who can lose thousands of dollars when their carts are confiscated by the health department, approval is just a small glimpse of what they hope to be. This year, salespeople who spoke with Capital and Main and LA TACO said they were open to buying a cart that would be Health Department approved as long as it wasn’t too big and not too expensive.

* * *

Street vendors like Juana Dominguez, who currently sells quesadillas and tacos on Main and 41st streets in Los Angeles, are open to buying a cart that would pass DPH’s brutal inspections. The 52-year-old vendor sold on the streets before arriving in the United States. She started 10 years ago, selling candy and gum before she was finally able to afford a taco cart.

Dominguez recognizes the need for a county-approved cart. In the past two years, she has had her carts taken away three times. The loss of her first cart, a combination grill and refrigerator, cost her and her husband $3,800.

Me da mucho gusto that there is finally a cart, because it has not been easy for many sellers, ”she said with a smile after seeing a photo of the design.

Although the design made by Gomez does not apply to Dominguez as a vendor who sells tacos, she is happy. She said she also sells tamales and understands the difficulties these sellers face. “Me salía a vender en las fábricas,” she says. “I would go out and sell in the factories.”

The state health code requires that a variety of foods — like tamales — be prepared only in stores. Even fruit vendors are technically not allowed to slice fruit on the street.

To keep her home-made tamales warm, she covered her pot with plastic and a cloth to keep the steam circulating, then tied the pot to a wheeled cooler. When asked what she thought of the price of the newly designed tamale cart, she said something similar to what she said in March.

“If it comes with the permit (the permits) it’s great because it makes the price of the cart not so bad, but if we still have to buy permits after getting the cart, it may be difficult for some sellers,” she said. , referring to sellers recovering from the pandemic. “But we understand it’s a step forward.”

His main concern was having to pay a monthly or hourly fee to a commissary: ​​DPH-approved kitchens where vendors can prepare food before going to sell. The state health code requires that a variety of foods — like tamales — be prepared only in commissaries. Even fruit vendors are technically not allowed to slice fruit on the street and can only do so in a licensed kitchen. According to Lyric Kelkar, fees can range between $20 and $32 per hour. An overnight stay can cost up to $200, which is roughly what a salesperson earns in a day’s work.

“See, that’s something to consider because it’s an extra bill for us, plus not all vendors have transportation to and from,” Dominguez explains.

Beverly Estrada At Bev’s Tamales, who sells near USC, says she’s already in line to purchase one of Gomez’s designs. “I’m waiting for mine,” she said enthusiastically.

The 42-year-old vendor sells traditional Mexican tamales, including chicken tamales and birria tamales along with a cup of consommé (broth). She has been selling for just over a year and has already received verbal warnings from the health department. Currently without a permit, she cooks in a pot at home with a small burner and a propane tank. For large orders, the saleswoman vacuum seals her tamales.

“I think it will be a great opportunity for street vendors like me because, to be honest, sometimes it feels like you don’t have a lot of support,” she said. “The cart gives sellers some hope, and now it’s here.”

Juana Dominguez is already eagerly waiting for the county to approve more designs.

“Hopefully a grill cart is next,” she says.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main