By Alfredo Santana
BELL GARDENS — The city is getting ready to roll out enforcement of new rules for street vendors selling hot food, according to a new ordinance.
Ordinance 932, approved on a 4-0 vote by the City Council on April 10, will require street vendors to possess a county health permit along with a city business license. The new law is the latest attempt by the city to appease concerns from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners upset with street vendors who sell cheaper cooked and grilled foods without paying taxes or having necessary permits.
The new law deleted language that called for liens on violator’s personal property that included vehicles used to transport equipment for the portable shops.
The new ordinance prohibits the sale of hot foods on the curb if vendors lack a valid health certificate issued by the county’s Department of Public Health.
It is expected that city inspectors will visit street hot food vendors to inform them how to upgrade their operations, but will not issue violations until May 10.
Also, the ordinance aims to bring a tighter local control under Senate Bill 946, known as the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2019 that ended criminal punishment for selling on sidewalks.
Among other items, vendors will be required to file applications with a list of up to three persons involved on each sidewalk cart, and should obtain individual selling permits from the Community Development Department and pay fees.
The new policy allows Community Development Department Director Gustavo Romo and his staff to revoke or cancel any business permits if the county’s health licenses are suspended, withdrawn or not renewed.
Councilman Jorgel Chavez, who posted on social media that he supported the plight of street food vendors, said the city cannot help them stay open if they do not meet health codes.
Chavez acknowledged criticism from restaurateurs for taking that stance, and underscored he was in favor of a level field making curbside food vendors operate under a more uniform set of rules.
“I do understand there is an issue when it comes to the imbalance,” Chavez said. “[They pay] insurance, they pay taxes. They pay all those sort of things that come along with running a business, compared with a street vendor who sets up a cart and starts selling,” Chavez said.
Before the new ordinance’s approval, Romo disclosed that in February only 13 of 30 street vendors had applied and received selling permits.
Two month ago there were 10 unpermitted taco and other hot food vendors with stationary kitchens, and seven other selling tamales and corn.
The licensed vendors included 10 fruit stands on wheeled carts and three flower merchants.
But traditional restaurant owners say the new ordinance does little to help them.
Gabi Ortiz, speaking on behalf of her father Eliazer Ortiz, owner of El Pescador Restaurant, said that in 40 years of doing business in Bell Gardens, he invested “every penny,” he had, hired hundreds of local employees and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and property taxes to benefit the state and local economy.
An even when he was relocated so the city could build the Los Jardines Shopping Center, “I chose to stay in town because the city had always treated me and my family fairly.”
Ortiz added that in 10 years as business owner, he always obeyed the rules related to planning, building and health, but now they don’t apply across the board.
“I’m writing to raise concerns about unregulated street vendors and their effects on restaurants like mine,” Ortiz said. “I’m concerned that if the current situation continues without regulation, the city of Bell Gardens’ businesses and residents will suffer.
“Having a level playing field means that anyone selling food is doing so in a manner that is consistent with public health standards. The public deserve to know that the food they are consuming is safe and fit for consumption.”
She said it’s impossible for health food authorities to know if hot foods prepared on the curb are safe unless they monitor pre-cooked temperatures.
Ortiz labeled the competition “unfair” due to overhead costs street vendors do not incur.
“This is a particularly difficult issue in light of the current economic climate, where businesses are already struggling due to high labor costs, soaring food costs and record breaking inflation,” Ortiz said.
The restaurant operator warned that the issue can get out of control if the city lets the unfettered practice balloon, as it happened in El Monte, where city leaders implemented emergency measures to raid unlicensed vendors for blocking sidewalks in violation of federal laws, creating fire hazards and hurting established eateries.
SB 972, a related law, bars police from impounding vending carts or temporary kitchens on the curb unless administrative infractions are not corrected.
The law provides that cities can issue citations for violations to their own municipal codes and encourages them to step up inspections of makeshift shops and preparation kitchens.
SB 972 allows meat or food cooking from removable kitchens if they meet higher sanitary measures, such as having sinks with proper water supply and disposal, or keeping meats frozen to avoid decaying meat.
The new ordinance also prohibits vendors from selling food in residential zones, street intersections, within 50 feet of another vendor on the same sidewalk, bans the use of loudspeakers and installation of tables, chairs, canopies or items that increase the cart’s footprint.
Danny Adame, a hot dog street vendor with a frying stove and two tables below a tent on Florence Avenue between Jaboneria Road and Ira Avenue, vowed he would apply for a permit exemption if the city starts health enforcements.
He argued that pre-cooked meats are not subject to stricter sanitary measures like raw meats for tacos, which should be stored at below 30 degrees Fahrenheit in certified freezers.
“This is a side job that helps me pay expensive rent,” Adame said. “I have two daughters and my wife. We do this to stay together, and also teach them we have to work hard to survive.”
Adame, whose stand is located among six other curbside vendors “on weekends only,” cautioned that if police conduct raids, vendors will move around and find other places to sell hot foods for a living.
“If [inspectors] are friendly, people will listen,” he said. “They don’t want the police to intervene. They should work with everyone to right what may be out of order. But if they seek problems, these people will give them problems.”