Street vendor harassment in California

Posted by Tammy

From the video: “Taco trucks pull up to curbs and offer LA eaters everything from tofu bowls to Korean barbeque. Customers flock to them, and recently so have police officers. Truck owners report being cited for everything from parking too close to curbs to parking too far away. Sometimes officers shut them down. Why would law enforcement target taco trucks for nuisance violations? Turns out nearby restaurants don’t like the competition.”

This clash between the police, brick-and-mortar restaurants and the truck food scene is not unique to Los Angeles. The business climate is worse in San Francisco. Initial setup costs for a truck food vendor in San Francisco can be as much as $150,000, according to the organizers of San Francisco Street Food Festival. Food and business permit costs an additional $10,000 per year. With those high-start up costs, one marvels at how most of these trucks can keep their costs down to less than $8 per dish.

One Korean fusion taco truck vendor called Seoul on Wheels wasn’t able to overcome San Francisco’s regulation structure. Julia Yoon now does most of her business on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. She started operating in and around Emeryville, Calif., by offering her Korean fusion flavor to Pixar Animation employees.

Some enterprising rolling restaurants have developed coping strategies by setting up weekly or monthly street food fairs. One in San Francisco last summer was very successful, based on the list of corporate sponsors including the Beringer wine brand and Whole Foods Market. Another sponsor was Foodbuzz, a San Francisco-based food blog community — of which both ZenKimchi and Beyond Koreanfornian Cooking have been “featured publishers.”

Police shut down a similar attempt at a weekly street fair in Los Angeles last year. Yet it has come back to life and is being organized as a yearly event. Imagine your favorite tteokbokki (떡볶이) or boong-o-bbang (붕어빵) stand in Seoul only being open once a year. These annual street fairs are better than nothing.

Now you have an idea of the uphill battle American urban food truck owners — Korean and non-Korean — face all the time just to stay in business.


"The Art of Korean Cooking" … in 1959

Banchan: Wine and Korean Food


13 thoughts on “Street vendor harassment in California”

  1. In Toronto, there’s only one approved street vendor food: hot dogs. It’s been that way for 25 years. Ever progressive, Toronto’s city council decided they’d test, gasp, other food vendors, like greek, korean, thai etc. The whole thing was designed by a committee and reeked of it. It was a massive failure. The vendors they got were candy ass whiners. The committee decided where the vendors could serve their ethnic food (like the Korean vendor couldn’t set up a stand in Korea town). You know instead of going “hey, license a cart, license a spot, meet health regs, and serve whatever where ever” the cluck heads thought they knew better from behind desk at city hall. Idiots.

  2. I didn’t mention this in the article, but Tulare County, which is a conservative county in California’s Central Valley, only charges $352/year for food vendor license while San Francisco charges $10,000.

    I do believe that this obsession with centralized planning of the economy is, in American political terminology, a liberal/progressive obsession.

    Whether it’s Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles or even New York, many urban governments are in a mass delusion about their own relevance in their constituent’s lives.

    After all, central planning worked really well in the Soviet Union, didn’t it?

  3. A big part is the property tax paying restaurants seem to really hate the food cart people, seeing them as being competition. They’ve got restaurant owner associations that can lobby.

    But c’mon. Having a heated restaurant with bathrooms and nice tables to sit around, well, you can’t compete. Each offers a different experience. It’s like live concert venues being afraid of recorded music.

  4. I hate going political, but centralization is historically a conservative feature. When liberals try to attempt it, it always backfires. When government became more decentralized through the progressive movements of the early 20th century, conservatives abandoned government and embraced big business as effective models of power centralization, the perfect model these days being Wal-Mart, which has more minute control over people and local economies than local governments.

  5. @ Joe. Any conversation about government regulation will inevitably go political! LOL! ; )

    @ Dave Thank you for posting that link. Here’s the paragraph that grabbed me: “Most of Seoul’s street vendors are operating illegally. Rather than regulate them, the government response has been to push them out of sight … But crackdowns have been mostly unsuccessful, because resistance is strong and the carts provide a livelihood to so many. They also add an undeniable flavor to this city.”

    It look like Mapo is trying the Singapore model corralling their street vendors into “hawker stands”.

  6. I’m not sure what the point of this video or this blog post is.

    You mean to tell me that people selling food on the street are actually required to follow laws? And the police might enforce them? Stop the presses!

    Those permit fees might sound high to you, but you would be surprised at how much those carts can actually make.

    Also: you’re not going to judge the success of a festival by its corporate sponsors are you?

    The only thing I really have to add to this conversation is that names like “Seoul on Wheels” make me wish I could enforce a moratorium on Seoul-related puns for the names of blogs and food carts.

  7. There are laws against prostitution in Canada but there’s also the realization it’s not going away. So many cities have high tolerance zones. As long as they don’t go beyond the zone and things appear well run and don’t cause noise/traffic, the cops tend to leave certain red light areas alone.

    By the same token, it’s reasonable a city could have a high tolerance zone or time for carts and food trucks.

    So yes, if police suddenly crack down on a red light district then stop the presses. The same could be said of a city that might have a tolerance for food cards suddenly cracking down on them.

    And seoul puns are breath of fresh air compared to Thai puns. Thai one on. It’s fan-thai-stick! Thai me up, thai me down…

  8. Laws are fine but when they become oppressive, people have to speak out. When the government starts getting high-handed and start harassing or even persecuting entrepreneurs, especially those who offer good food at a good price to the poor and working poor, we speak out.
    I posted this article because of the similarities between the plight of the food truck vendors in California and the Hyewha Filipino Market in the Jongno District in Seoul (
    Both groups are harassed by the local government as well as the cops. Both the food vendors with their mobile trucks and the Filipino Market offer a legitimate and popular product that the people want and need but the government is more set on maintaining their own definition of “community development” than allowing the community itself to grow and bloom on its own.

  9. A city may have a blanket law as a way of establishing a framework for allowing high tolerance zones to grow organically. This way the city doesn’t have to debate and legislate certain areas of the city as places you can legally operate and then have to re-vote 4 years later as population and demographics change. It gives them the tools to crack down if it gets out of hand but it also lets the community determine its own tolerance. If I opened a pojangmatcha on my street, people would have shit fit and call the cops. If people set them up at night in k-town there would be a very high tolerance. Both would be technically illegal under the law but the cops don’t have to bust what people want.

    One person might think busting down on koji trucks is excessive. Another might think it’s keeping the sidewalks clear. People will vote with their calls to the cops and letters to the editor and calls to their city councilors.

  10. Good points, Karl, esp the Thai puns, which I admit made me laugh. Thai expats might be tired of them, but they are new to me.

    Tammy’s comments make it clear that this whole post is in support of her political agenda. That’s cool, this is a blog, you have an opinion on politics, so why not write them? This is not journalism here.

    But this comes back to another comment I wrote about the direction this site is taking. Careful where you’re going, now!

    The only other thing I will say is that in some parts of this country oxycontin in enjoyed by the poor and working poor, so maybe those communities should be allowed to grow and bloom as well, without the government oppressing the entrepreneurs who provide those services?

    Sure, dealing drugs is “against the law.” But so are some of these food trucks. Laws are fine but when they become oppressive, people have to speak out.

    Just sayin’.

  11. In the west, there should definately be some regulations on street food. A vendor be expected to tolerate inspections from some government org.

    However, in Korea, restaurants are not subjected to this requirement, so requiring street vendors to follow rules is pointless and self-serving.

    You are just as likely to get hepatitis from a nice restaurant in Korea as you are from a street vendor.

    No one is making sure that basic sanitary procedures are followed in the food service industry.


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