Along the sidewalks of Oakland’s Fruitvale district, street food vendors are busy every day selling traditional tamales, fresh fruit, corn chips and homemade ice cream. If you talk to them, you’ll learn they are also busy establishing citizenship, acquiring legal sellers’ permits, and expanding their businesses in pursuit of the American Dream. What started in the late 90s as a small group of people selling food illegally out of supermarket shopping carts, according to locals, has grown into an industry comprised of some 200 street food vendors, and is still growing.

In a previous article, Oakland Local tagged along with Miguel Montiel, a vendor whose family sells fruit cocktails on International Boulevard, to glance at a typical day of a street food vendor’s life on the job, and get a feel for the street vending community.

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Through Montiel, we met Emilia Otero, a community organizer who owns La Placita on International Boulevard, one of the local commissaries where food vendors lease space to prepare their foods for the day. Originally from Tijuana, Otero moved to Oakland in 1995 after having spent years as a political activist in East Los Angeles. While volunteering at a local after-school program in 1997, she was approached by an undocumented street food vendor who pleaded with her to help him and a handful of other immigrants in gaining legal status and making their businesses legitimate.

“He told me this story that became close to my heart. When I started talking to these street food vendors, I saw their reputation and a potential no one wanted to see,” Otero recalls. “They wanted to pay taxes and get permits, everything it would take for them to become legal.”

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Tamales in the making at La Placita

At that time, there weren’t any laws in Oakland pertaining to this emerging mobile food industry. Otero began holding meetings at her house with the ten or so street food vending pioneers and reaching out to local politicians for support in legalizing their businesses, and it worked. City officials rallied to her cause, she says, and helped make the path toward attaining legal business and health permits more accessible to vendors. The efforts culminated in 2001, when Oakland established an ordinance allowing pushcarts and food trucks to operate legally in this city within certain neighborhoods and set parameters.

“Once I legalized their business status, we were a political force and people started respecting us,” Otero proclaimed with pride in an interview.

Despite the dedication of Otero and many street food vendors in growing this alternative dining economy into what it is today, stereotypes of Latin American food vendors continue to circulate in the mainstream community. After having been immersed in the street food vending culture through this project, Oakland Local thought it to be important to clarify some of the misconceptions.

Emilia Otero at La Placita

Myth #1: Street food vendors are illegal

For a majority of street food vendors today, they arrive in Oakland with work permits and pursue legal citizenship status while they get their food trucks or pushcarts up and running. Each mobile food facility requires a business license, a county health department permit, and a tax number.

Street food vending is a risky business for undocumented and unlicensed individuals. Without the necessary paperwork, vendors can be cited and arrested, and also put the reputation of legalized food vending in jeopardy. Because of their fragile reputation, sanitation standards are largely enforced by food vendors themselves.

However, some street food vendors learn the business by working for more established food truck vendors. These individuals may be working without residency papers and proper permits, and are sometimes exploited by the vendors they work under, Otero said.

She described this side of the street food industry as a sort of monopoly, with one overhead vendor controlling many new immigrants and absorbing most of the money these street vendors bring in. In this case, the main vendor takes advantage of his workers’ inability to communicate in English and their being intimidated by the law.

Myth #2: Immigrants who are street food vendors only want to make money to send back to their hometowns

Thinking back on the initial backlash she received from the broader community in the infancy stages of the Asociación De Comerciantes Ambulantes De Fruitvale, Otero recollects, “People used to tell me, ‘those dirty Mexicans, why are you helping those people? All they want is to get money to send to their country.’ But I knew it wasn’t true.”

Being able to provide for your family is an obvious yearning for anyone, and some must go to extreme lengths to do so because of institutional factors outside their control. However, street food vendors typically look to increase their businesses by hiring employees (who are often extended family members), franchising, and climbing up the good ol’ fashioned way.

According to a study by the National League of Cities, $650 million is generated by mobile food vending each year, with an estimated increase to a whopping $2.7 billion by 2017. Clearly money earned is not lost.

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Myth #3: Some street food is prepared without attention to hygiene

The most important permit — and most enforced regulation — is a permit from the county Environmental Health Department for food handling and cleanliness inspection. According to its requirements, food sellers must take a course on safe food preparation and handling, use a commercial kitchen or commissary to prepare their food and receive yearly inspections of their carts or trucks. These mobile facilities must also be equipped with a hand-washing station.

Inside La Placita

Myth #4: Vendors sell food on the street because they have no other option for employment

As part of the American Dream allure, self-governance is a sought-after asset. Teresa Mondragon began her business as described above, illegally selling tamales out of a Lucky Supermarket cart before connecting with Otero way back in the legal inception of street food vending.

When asked why she chooses to sell food on the street as opposed to working elsewhere, Mondragon responds, “I like my business because I don’t have anybody that tells me what to do. The clock is my only boss right now.”

She now owns a food truck, and is proud of the fame her tamales have accrued throughout the years, “I [serve] children that were in their mom’s tummy. Their mothers ate my tamales, and now they come to buy tamales from me.”

Myth #5: Street food vending diverts business from brick-and-mortar restaurants

When street food vending picked up in the Fruitvale district, there were hardly any restaurants on International Boulevard, Otero says. “The reason [restaurant owners] opened restaurants here is because they wanted to be competitors to [street food vendors], not the other way around.”

Perhaps the two trajectories in the food industry are inadvertently cultivating a symbiotic relationship. According to a report by the Oakland Food Policy Council, street food vendors attract foot traffic to parts of town that may otherwise go unnoticed, which could promote business for restaurants. Street food vendors contribute to the diversity and liveliness of city streets, which entice consumers and increase revenue.

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Teresa Mondragon’s loncherita, located in the Fruitvale district

Currently, individual Oakland street food vending is only legally permitted in certain neighborhoods of East Oakland, namely the Fruitvale district, and select spots near downtown during certain days and hours, such as Oakland’s monthly First Friday nights. The city is (and has been) in the process of revising these regulations to encompass the increasing interest and participation in street food vending, but it keeps getting postponed.

When asked what the future of street food vending looks like, Otero replies keenly, “What I used to say back then was, ‘this is the business of the future.’ No one believed that. Now it’s the future.”

The American economy flourishes in times of option and opportunity. There’s a strong argument in Emilia’s prediction of the mobile food industry’s success: with low overhead costs and the freedom of location, instead of investing tens of thousands of dollars in a restaurant that will more than likely fail, you could buy a few food trucks or many push carts, and put people to work. It seems that street food vendors may be ahead of the curve, revitalizing the American Dream in its ever-evolving manifestations.

To learn more about Oakland Local’s initiative on “Street Food: Meet the people who make it” click here. Read the previous installment about the daily life of vendors and the community they’ve cultivated here. Oakland Local staff members Barbara Grady and Anna Vignet contributed to this story.

For more stories about Oakland’s street food vendors, follow Oakland Local on Facebook or Twitter. Join the conversation at #foodundocumented.

Read our complete series:

Oakland Local launches “Street food: Meet the people who make it”

Oakland street food: meet the people who make it

Oakland street food: the path to legitimacy

Video: Oakland street food: The documentary (Part 1) 

Video: Oakland street food: The documentary (Part 2) 

Video: Oakland street food: The documentary (Part 3)

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at simonelarson@oaklandlocal.com

2 Responses

  1. rayon

    Many of these individuals already have extensive experience with street vending in their home countries.

    I will never again buy from push cart with the tamales – just sayin

    Reply
  2. Ed

    Street food isn’t all about taco trucks, but they’re my personal favorite. That’s why I keep a Google map of them and rate them and ask Oaklanders to help whenever the opportunity presents itself. Locate and review your favorite taco bites here http://bit.ly/YTL8Y8

    Reply

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