Last month, a virtual alphabet soup of city agencies capped a months-long planning process and rolled out a warning for the general public: Eating bacon-wrapped hot dogs is bad for you.
This is not a likely entry into the annals of better government. There is clearly illegal and undesirable activity going on on San Francisco’s streets, be it rotten meat or rotten conditions for vulnerable, undocumented workers or overt selling of stolen goods. And yet, the city’s response last month was to put the onus on the public.
This is unfortunate. But, more to the point, it’s also likely ineffective. Nancy Reagan appearing on “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1983 to urge young people to “Just say no” to drugs did little to stem the crack epidemic, and instructing San Franciscans that bacon-wrapped hot dogs may make them sick is unlikely to hamstring the burgeoning bacon-wrapped hot-dog business. The lucrative nature of this venture is demonstrated by the ever expanding and nigh-infinite number of unpermitted sellers flooding onto San Francisco’s finite waterfront street space.
Multiple sources told Mission Local that, during the many, many meetings between city agencies regarding a proliferation of unlicensed vendors along the Embarcadero, police talked up examples of sausages months past expiration being stored in direct sunlight. Images of rancid green meat, the reasoning went, would scare the bejeezus out of San Francisco residents and visitors in much the same way that tales of atrocities in meatpacking plants did for the early 20th century readers of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
Well, perhaps. Today’s consumers are inured to an awful lot. But, in the end, we’ll probably never know, because we didn’t get photos of rancid green meat. The innocuous image fed to the press showed a stack of bacon-wrapped hot dogs being stored in a tinfoil-lined cardboard box.
“I thought those photos were enough!” says Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer. “It seems pretty extreme to me, how that meat is just sitting out. Also, there are no hand-washing stations.”
The Department of Public Health provided us with 125 reported cases of food-borne illnesses thus far in 2023. There are some doozies in here:
- “Burrito seemed 4 days old.”
- After cooking meat in a crock pot for six hours, “caller discovered a bug in the middle of the meat. The bug was still alive and it ran across the counter.”
- Lime-cucumber Gatorade “aftertaste was bad and kind of tasted like urine. It caused me to vomit.”
And yet, there has been only one food-borne illness report this year regarding a street vendor. And that vendor hawked not hot dogs, but fruit.
Last week, a series of Public Works street inspectors lined up to give public comment during a Board of Supervisors meeting regarding violence and harassment they’ve experienced when confronting vendors.
This is clearly an untenable situation and, last month, one of these inspectors went viral in a manner even less pleasant than a food-borne illness. On Oct. 2, a Public Works employee was filmed flipping over a hot dog vendor’s cart on the Embarcadero. This highly public misstep invariably delayed the long-planned vendor campaign, and potentially poisoned the effort in the public’s mind before it was even out of the starting gate.
“That guy,” sums up one city official, “fucked up everything.”
But, truth be told, things were already pretty effed up. And a growing chorus of city officials — Mayor London Breed, police officers, Public Works, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Aaron Peskin and more — are pointing the finger back at Sacramento. The state, they claim, flipped over San Francisco’s hot-dog cart and has left the city to deal with the mess.
Specifically: SB 946, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 essentially decriminalizes street vending (and makes the process of enforcing peddler permits or targeting sellers of suspected stolen goods far, far more onerous) and SB 972, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, essentially decriminalized food vending.
In theory, these laws do things San Franciscans would want: They keep police from busting vulnerable immigrants over hot dog-caliber infractions, which could lead to a vendor’s deportation. In practice, however, they have led to a situation in which honest peddlers have been made to compete with thieves, and in which some vendors are working in a system that appears to resemble indentured servitude. There is little the city can do to enforce its rules, other than sending non-law-enforcement workers out to play cat-and-mouse games with sellers. These city workers are incurring both physical and psychological damage while being staked to a Sisyphean task; they don’t tend to work swing or night shifts, and illicit action tends to pick up the moment they’re gone.
In the end, half of the city’s departments met for months and ended up asking you to solve this problem by forgoing hot dogs.
“We need to change the law,” says mayoral spokesman Jeff Cretan. “The mayor has raised this with other mayors across the state, and they are saying the same thing. The mayors of San Diego, Los Angeles and Fresno are all interested.”
Adds Peskin, “When Gavin Newsom runs around talking about San Francisco being in a doom loop, it’s because of a law he signed.”
The city has found itself pinned between well-meaning but infeasible laws and honoring their noble intentions. That may explain the rather milquetoast photo of hot dogs in a box. City officials worry that an inflammatory campaign might stoke anti-Latinx bigotry of the sort seen in other cities experiencing a proliferation of undocumented vendors.
“No one wants to touch this law,” says an exasperated city official. “And so we have lawlessness.”
First, Stan Roth was assailed by rogue hot dog sellers. Then he was assailed by the city of San Francisco. And now he’s out of business.
“I had to close my business after 48 years,” says the former proprietor of the familiar Stanley’s Steamers hot dog cart at Union Square and San Francisco’s first permitted food vendor. “It’s devastating: We lost our business, lost our retirement, lost everything.”
SB 946, he continues, “basically put me out of business. I don’t have any animus toward the vendors. They’re just trying to make a living. But I have strong feelings about the city.”
The end came abruptly for Roth. It was at the Chinese New Year’s Parade in 2020, when unlicensed hot dog vendors commandeered the spot his permit entitled him to. When he asked them to move a few yards off, they did not. A call was made, and a boss figure emerged. Roth will never forget what he was told next. “He put his finger into my chest and said, ‘Be very careful, my friend. We know who you are. We know where you store your carts. We are not leaving. If anyone is leaving, it will be you.’”
So, that’s what happened. Roth says he was told by the city that, following SB 946, it did not have the authority to protect the locations his permits granted him to use. But Roth is a creative man; he believes in Abraham Lincoln’s adage that it is better to build a house of one’s own than tear down the house of another. So, if the city couldn’t enforce his mobile cart permits, maybe he could get permits for a more permanent, affixed structure.
Thus began a futile, maddening and expensive wild-goose chase. In short: Roth says that the city told him it would cost $170,000 to run water and power out to an affixed, permanent cart on a Union Square corner. But that’s not all: It would cost him $30,000 to apply for the permits and initiate a years-long process with no guarantee of success. But that’s not all: The city, he says, insisted that his permits could be revoked at any time, arbitrarily — and, if that were to happen, he’d be on the hook for the cost of removing the water and power lines and retrenching and repaving the streets … and that could run to more than $300,000. But that’s not all: In the event of this costly occurrence, Roth says he would have been mandated to provide a surety bond, the cost of which would run $18,000 a year for the premium.
These costs were unfathomable: “I sell hot dogs for a living.” And now he doesn’t. He gave up the Union Square commissary he built. It will next be operated by celebrity chef Tyler Florence, who was, bizarrely, gifted $440,000 in city funds to move in.
“Ironically, Mayor Breed is now offering tax breaks to get businesses to come to, or stay in, the downtown area, while my Legacy Pushcart Business is being forced to close because the City can’t find me a solution,” Roth noted in a March 17 letter to Peskin.
“Meanwhile, the street vendors that replaced us are physically assaulting City inspectors. You just can’t write this stuff.”
But, while Roth has sold his last dog, new sellers flood the city every day. Mission Local’s Kelly Waldron spoke to a dozen of them along the Embarcadero over the course of two weeks. And, to a person, they are all recent immigrants — from Mexico, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala. None speaks English, and none are documented. This is their first job here, and they all say it’s the only job they can get.
And, while a couple of the sellers are independent, most work for a bigger boss who takes most of their money. City officials openly use the term “cartel” to describe the outfits dropping off vendors hawking hot dogs, fruit or clandestine liquor near Pier 39 or Chase Center and picking them up — with bosses allegedly making threats and running off competition like Roth.
Several of the vendors said they didn’t even know who their boss was. Most handed over the majority of the money they made to those bosses — keeping only 30 to 45 percent of a day’s earnings. And those earnings are often meager: On a good day, some of the vendors cleared upwards of $200, but then forked over half or more of that. On a bad day, they might only sell one or two dogs, for 10 or 20 bucks.
During “the week with the planes,” however, a vendor named Ronald, said he made a fortune: $2,000 in a day. He sends money back to family in Nicaragua, and pays down the cost of being smuggled into the country.
But Fleet Week comes but once a year. More typically, a vendor like “Santos” will gross around $800 in a week, and pocket $400. Rent is $500 for a room shared with three other people in Civic Center. He’s also paying back the $22,000 he borrowed to cross the border — with $1,000 a month solely on interest. “Uno se preocupa,” he admits (“one worries”).
The city hopes that driving customers away from sellers like Ronald and Santos will lead them to abandon the profession, and spare the put-upon brick-and-mortar establishments who’ve watched their bottom line be undercut by people earning starvation-level pay while living in poverty. And that it may. But no city official I spoke with had considered what the Ronalds and Santoses of the world might start selling if they were driven away from vending hot dogs.
There are, it turns out, substances that are worse for you than rotting sausage. And people will do what people need to do.
“Tenemos que ver cómo sobrevivir,” says a vendor named Prosper. “We have to see how to survive.”