Lucero Muñoz, photographed here in 2009, is one of the many street vendors who struggled with permit issues.

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The night of Dia de los Muertos, Lucero Muñoz was selling her bacon wrapped hot dogs on the street when a policeman approached her. “‘I told you I don’t want to see you here,’” he said and asked her to turn over her cart. The onions, sausages, jalapeños and hot dogs ended up scattered on the ground.

“I felt so humiliated,” said Muñoz, as she remembered the incident.

But that, she decided in late November, would be the last time.  Dressed up and feeling happy and nervous at the same time, Muñoz headed to City Hall. She had one goal — to get a street merchant’s permit — a piece of legitimacy that only 16 Mission carts hold, according to Alfreddie Steward, the administrative permit officer for the San Francisco Police Department.

While the hipster street cart vendors of the Mission District get invited to official functions, many who have long worked the Mission’s streets are more likely to get a $250 ticket than an invitation. Officer Steward estimates that some 35 to 40 vendors operate in the Mission District without a license. Muñoz is one of them and in the past two years she’s gotten ten tickets.

Her trip to become a legal vendor offers a lesson into what even city officials call an outdated permitting system.

“There is an underground economy of street vendors because permitting by the city is nearly impossible,” said Martha Yanez, Business Case Manager at the Small Business Assistance Center.

Yanez works one on one at the Office of Small Business in City Hall and says the odds of getting a permit fail to favor the many merchants who walk into her office every day.

“I don’t want to discourage them,” said Yanez. “The best I can do is explain the procedures so they don’t enter the process blindly.”

In that spirit Yanez sat with Muñoz at a small round table inside the Office of Small Business to explain the procedures.

The first step for Muñoz would be to go in person to the Police Department at 850 Bryant Street and file an application for the Pushcart Peddler Permit. Getting one is particularly difficult because the street merchant has to locate two blocks or 600 feet away from an established business selling the same type of food. Meeting that requirement in the Mission is nearly impossible because of the number of existing establishments.

“The officer that processes the permit is the one that decides what is considered the ‘same type of food,’” said Yanez. “Maybe there is a grocery store nearby. That can be considered the same food and the permit would be denied.”

The application also requires a $594 non-refundable fee. According to Officer Steward, police let vendors apply more than once under the same fee. “We don’t have to, but if the application is denied, as a courtesy, we let the person apply once or twice again without paying the fee,” he said.

Even if a merchant gets the Pushcart Peddler Permit, the second step is also daunting: the health department’s permit. To get one, food vendors need to show that they are cooking their food in a licensed kitchen, Yanez said, “There is no such thing as a home licensed kitchen.”

Once they have the health permit, the other requirements — a business license, registering the business and getting a sellers permit — are straightforward.

After one hour, Muñoz left the Office of Small Business with a load of papers, brochures and her attitude still intact. “I won’t get discouraged,” she said to no one in particular, but wondered aloud if she would be able to get a license.

Only a few do.

One is Maria del Carmen Flores, who sells a variety of pupusas, tamales and plantain chips. She also distributes her products directly to restaurants. Flores got her health permit by using the kitchens at La Cocina, a non-profit that rents licensed commercial kitchen space at an affordable rate. She uses the kitchen three days a week and pays from $650 to $770 monthly.

“I’m always grateful to the ones that had helped me,” said Flores referring to La Cocina and the non-profit Women’s Initiative. Flores is one of 35 small businesses that use La Cocina, but “hardly any of them are street vendors because it’s so hard to do,” said Leticia Landa, Program Associate of La Cocina.

Flores, for example, only has a health permit because she sells in farmers markets or directly to restaurants. This means she doesn’t need a Pushcart Peddler Permit.

Yanez says it’s not the fees street cart vendors complain about, but the difficulty of the process. She often hears from them “‘We’ll pay but just give us the permits.’”

Officer Steward from the Police Department acknowledged that the restrictions on permits are difficult. “Some of the rules are old and need to change,” he said, but added that it wasn’t up to the police.  “It’s not the police that write the rules, we just enforce them.”

Sandra Murillo who works for Women’s Initiative as a small business consultant said she understands that the Health Department is defending consumer rights by imposing regulations, but added, “It is devastating for the merchants when their food gets thrown away.

Yanez said there are so many informal vendors that it would be smart for the city to find a way to formalize them. “Customers are interested in buying and merchants are interested in selling. If the street food remains underground the city loses.”

La Cocina agreed and said the interest in street food is only growing.

This past August 22nd, La Cocina organized the San Francisco Street Food Festival. Thirty vendors participated. Some were people that use the kitchen at La Cocina, others were local restaurants and the majority were informal vendors that for the first time had a space to sell their products legally. Muñoz was among them selling her bacon wrapped hot dogs.

The event went from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm and was a success. “Crowds of people showed up and there were long lines of customers,” said Landa, from La Cocina.  This Friday, the nonprofit will again have its vendors out — this time at a gift fair at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

Yanez said that there is interest from the Office of Small Business, Supervisor Avalos’ office and La Cocina to make the permitting process more accessible.

In the meantime, street vendors that are familiar with internet social networks tweet so their customers know where to find them. Less internet savvy vendors like Muñoz hope to keep away from police. Muñoz said that every time officers give her a ticket, they advise, “Get a permit.”

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Veronica Moscoso

Veronica Moscoso, is an Ecuadorian storyteller who narrates through radio, video, and short stories. She lived in the Middle East, South East Asia and now in California.

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32 Comments

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  1. I was on Haight Street with a few of my drawing out on the sidewalk and got a ticket for peddling without a permit. The government is just trying to oppress new business so people will have to buy stuff from the established coorporations.

  2. As someone who has gotten sick from street vended food, and couldn’t find the vendor again to warn them, I have every sympathy with the city, and would like to see many more inspections and confiscations of vendor carts for violating sanitation rules. Of course I’d also like to see public toilets required for every restaurant and grocery store, and public toilets with paid attendants like civilized cities have.

    So much to fix, so little interest! We live in savage times, with citizens who don’t speak germs and don’t accept defecation and urination as facts of human existence…

  3. carthappy
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm
    Many people are missing the point here. The street vendors are not asking for ANY special privilages . . . The vendors are not trying to have any easier health requirements
    ===
    So why isn’t she following established food handling procedures right now? I think it’s you who misses the point. It’s not just that she is unlicensed; it’s that additionally she is obviously serving unhygienic food to the public.

  4. check out caribbean jerk chicken and jerk fish tacos in oakland. permitted and all. twitter @getjerked. on the road again soon in a neighborhood near you.

  5. Shut them all down. It cost a lot of time and money to sell food according to the rules that 99% of vendors seem to be able to comply with. Having some hack prepare food in their home kitchen then peddle it at prices a licensed vendor could never meet is BS, double BS if there is a brick and mortar nearby.

  6. heath said, “…just because food carts are trendy doesn’t mean we should…undermine other local business.” Okay, so you are a socialist and believe that fixed local businesses deserve special socialist protection against mobile-vendor local businesses. Far as I can see both types are “local” so even under socialist principles, as opposed to free market reality, your argument is illogical. Locality is irrelevant. What’s to stop Taqueria X from opening a storefront within 600 feet of Taqueria Y? Absolutely nothing: it’s a free market. But what’s to stop Taqueria Vendor X from opening a stand within 600 feet of Taqueria Y? A law clearly discriminatory against vendors that gives special favors to fixed businesses. How did this law come to exist? Probably from the lobbying of the fixed businesses. It’s a special interest law designed merely to favor one business type over another. How about we be truly DEMOCRATIC and apply the 600 foot rule to EVERY business in the city? Want to run a hotel? Has to be 600 feet away from all other hotels. Want to run a coffee shop? Has to be 600 feet away from all other coffee shops. Want to run an apartment complex? Has to be 600 feet away from all other for profit apartment complexes. Absurd.

  7. Many people are missing the point here. The street vendors are not asking for ANY special privilages. The law allows you to sell only hotdogs (and not with bacon) or tamales. Period… BUT you can not get a license for even these two things IF someone is selling a similar item within 600 feet. That means you may not have a hot dog cart with a coke if a coke is being sold by anyone within 600 feet. Do you see the problem here? The hot dog carts that we have near Union Square are grandfathered in and it is unlikely you will ever see any more anywhere in the City UNLESS the vendor can find private property to park the cart on. The vendor will still need to follow every other vending health and permit process. In essence the City does not want carts and makes it near impossible to operate one. The vendors are not trying to have any easier health requirements or avoid paying for any of the fees or permits. They are tring to be able to offer a product.. like a cupcake for instance.. to the public using the same stringent health codes that apply to restaurants but the City will not allow it. I have no cart. I do not sell cupcakes. I am telling you the absolute rules that are currently inplace. We should all be lobbying to get carts on the streets. Almost EVERY other counrty has street food and almost everyone who has ever travelled can tell you what a fantastic part of experiencing a trip and another culture it can be to try them. Loosen up people. Get carts, have fun, keep ’em clean.

  8. So a cop just walks up and sez “dump your stuff in the street”? Or WHAT? Is he going to tase the woman? Do a little beat down on her head?, Last time I heard of something like this, the “police” were making some people sew yellow stars on their clothes. Why aren’t 1000 ACLU lawyers lined up at city hall to take a piece of the cops ass? Is this the same cop that hands out the licenses? Maybe he has his own “application” fee that he didn’t get? And why is the city RATIONING push cart licenses? I guess the American dream died when the polibureau seized power.

  9. Does anyone besides me question the raw bacon wrapped dog immediately next to the presumably cooked one (look at the upper edge of the cart, closest to camera). This is a major food handling error, and having raw bacon out in the air like that is another. I see sick people galore if this is the common practice. Has anyone thought about what food handling issues are going to be emphasized with licensing?

  10. Seems fair enough to me. I went down to City Hall and paid for my biz license, and carry insurance- why shouldn’t she have to follow the rules too? Because of the economy? She’s Latina? She may be supporting a family?
    These things are not optional, so it’s nice to see one more person doing the right thing.

  11. I cooked at home thereby avoiding all contraversy, restaurant reviews, street vendors, tacos on the trolley and roach coaches. Nothing beats your own sanitation standards and culinary expertise.

  12. I offer Manhattan as the model of what is possible. Every street corner has an outside vendor even in the dead of winter. Yet the city is rife with rent-paying restaurants. The co-exist and probably help each other. San Francisco would be a more interesting place with hundreds of street vendors. Let the health dept focus on the few who do not operate safely. I suspect the vendors would police themselves. The police attitude that ‘we don’t make the law’ is the typical copout of any public employee. It’s easier to say no. And the arrogance that power breeds contributes to cops who spill food on the pavement to show how tough they are.

  13. It’s not the health permits that are the problem people, it is the requirement that the street vendors stay 600 feet away from a brick and mortar (store/restaurant) that sells similar food (subject to an officer’s interpretation). So a hot dog vendor near a store that sells hot dog buns could be denied legally. And if you sell Mexican food, no way you can meet the 600 ft. restriction in the Mission District. It is that part of the Peddler Permit process that makes no sense. And to all you militant Vegans, bite me, people eat meat, we always have, deal with it.

  14. It’s easier to open an underground bar or dance club than it is to try and be a legit, legal small business in San Francisco.

  15. Permits suck to get, but by allowing vendors to get away with not obtaining them hurts local business owners who went about things the right way. Anyone whose dealt with a health inspector knows its always in everyones best interest to do things the legal way, their way. Food Safety Laws are always being updated and its the health departments job to inform and enforce them. Until all carts are inspected then they should continue to shut them down. OR clearly post its a non SFHD inspected spot, least folks will have a heads up.

  16. In Malaysia, food carts thrive BECAUSE of heavy government regulation. Everyone eats from them because they know they’re safe.

    Also, consider the cuisine. Curry, Korean tacos like in LA, antojitos — bring it on.

    I’m sorry, but it’s hard for me to weep about one less bacon-wrapped hot-dog vendor.

  17. @Tom: The point of permits is not to make sure food is safe- it’s to collect extortion money, officially codified and sanctioned.

    Public health is merely a pretext, as there’s no serious commitment to food safety in this town. Restaurant inspections in SF are few and far between, so dinners eat at their own risk.

    Keeping the little guy down with arcane permit requirements and draconian enforcement is par for the course for SF’s mafia-like city government.

  18. I must be fleeing this place now ! Hot dogs wrapped in bacon ? I was thinking wrong when I came to understand this city is for the veggie eaters ! You offend me and my religion ! and I must be smelling you for all time.

  19. As a longtime Mission resident AND vegetarian, I take offense at the burning dead animals I’m forced to smell everytime I walk home. Sorry to all you hopped up meat freaks, I gotta share this space too.

    No more peddler permits in the Mission!

  20. The point of a permit is to make sure food is safe! Commercial kitchens get inspected to make sure the food is cooked in a safe clean environment. This is not rocket science, just common sense.

    If you hand out permits to pushcarts, obviously they can make good money standing outside a real (inspected, tax paying, rent paying, fair wage paying) restaurant. But is their food safe? Is there rat poop on it? Are those tongs coated with bacteria? What’s in it? We’ll never know.

    p.s. bacon-wrapped hotdogs will kill you rapido.

  21. I get that excessive red tape is detrimental to business, but based on the article I fail to see what is so horrible about the street vendor permit process. It looks pretty straightforward to me: apply, prove you work within established requirements for sanitation and public health, get the business license. What is so terrible here? I suspect the “problem” is that these folks do not want to have to comply with the health department regulations. Regulations that are in place for very good reasons, and are why the United States has among the safest food supply in the world. Could the health department institute a “home kitchen” process? Sure, and they probably should at some point. But I’m certain they have far more important matters to attend to.

    Just because a process is hard does not make it bad. Just because you want to have a food cart does not mean you should have a food cart.

  22. Yes it’s a pain to go through red tape, but just because food carts are trendy doesn’t mean we should skirt health regulations (especially with raw meat and no refrigeration) or undermine other local business. The system needs to be updated but it shouldn’t be easier for someone cooking food on the street than it is for a restaurant.

  23. Wait a second…Unlicensed drivers will not get their cars impounded if pulled over by police, but unlicensed food vendors have to dump all of their food if caught? It just doesn’t make sense.

  24. If you’ve ever had a bacon wrapped hot dog with grilled onions or even have SMELLED the aroma from a block away (especially after a night of drinking in the mission), there would be no doubt to supporting these merchants. I hope SF changes the process soon…I want my bacon wrapped hot dogs!!! I saw we set up a cart in front of City Hall and everyone will be pulling for this change!

  25. Good story with follow up to the source. How can we expect the government to save us, our jobs, our way of life when they don’t even seem to slightly “get it”? Best of luck to you Lucero and the other brave street vendors making a go of it in today’s economy!

  26. Really? Wha she has to do a little leg work. Thanks for not following easy city laws to make us safe. SF needs to heavily regulate food carts like they do in Singapore.