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Her trip to become a legal vendor offers a lesson into what even city officials call an outdated permitting system.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