San Diego Street Vendors Face New Rules, Protections

With little equipment and often a low profile, some non-permitted sellers walk the streets of San Diego shouting out their menu to passersby. 

Dina Villa is one of those vendors. Villa agreed to an interview as she and her daughter yelled to passing customers outside of a supermarket in Chula Vista, “Tamales, y champurrado!”

Villa has been selling beef and chicken tamales outside of that supermarket since 2012, risking fees and penalties.

“I started to do so in order to improve life for my family,” she said.

As of January, new rules are in effect in San Diego for those who want to sell food or merchandise on the street.

The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, SB 946 signed into California law last year changes the way cities regulate street vending.

A city or other local authority can’t prohibit street vendors from operating but can require permits for their equipment and food handling. It also prohibits criminal penalties for violations of regulations, instead, violators would face administrative fees.

With her husband in Mexico unable to cross the border, Villa provides the main source of income in her household and works to provide for her three children and her elderly blind father.

“I don’t see it as very difficult because when one wants to move ahead, one will find a way to do it,” Villa said. “I tell my daughter that what holds people back is fear. When you’re afraid or afraid to risk something you’ll never advance. Fear paralyzes you. So many people are afraid to do something and don’t move forward, they block themselves. Not me. One day I told myself ‘I’m tired of not having money in my pocket, and my children are hungry.’”

Villa passes out business cards to customers and said she has hopes of one day having her own store where she can sell tamales and what she described as “American food.”

Villa said she has been kicked off the property in Chula Vista before, but it didn’t deter her from coming back.

“There was a customer who told on me to the manager who then came and talked to me,” she said. “The manager said I had to leave or they’d call the police. So, I left, but about two days later I came back. I have to work.”

It is a similar story among pushcart vendors too.

Jesus Daniel Robles is a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States with hopes of making money by selling elote. At just 17 years old, he left school in Mexico to try his fortune selling traditionally prepared corn in Chula Vista.

“We don’t all have the same luck,” he said. “But here is where the money is.”

Robles, who has only been selling for two months, said he plans to move to Los Angeles where he said he heard it was easier and more acceptable to be a street vendor.

He said he has been asked to leave from some places where he has set up, but it was “in a nice manner” and said his stay in the United States so far has been a good experience.

Robles explained that many have commented on the risks he runs at such a young age but he remains positive about his future.

“Yeah, everybody tells me that but, nothing's going to happen,” he said. “I am always very positive. One hundred percent positive in any job that I do. I know that things will turn out okay. It's just a matter of waiting. You must have faith and the doors will open.”

Robles said when he finds it hard to sell in one spot, he will try his luck in another area in Chula Vista.

For a permitted street vendor, the process can be a little more predictable.

Photo by: Cristofer Garcia
Mario Romero, owner of El Tigre Churros y Platanos, is preparing a fresh batch of churros for his customers. Romero has been selling on this corner of University Avenue and 36 th Street for 12 years.

Mario Romero is the owner of El Tigre Churros y Platanos, a small stand that sets up in University Avenue and 36th Street.

It seems to be the only visible street stand in the stretch of University Avenue between the 805 freeway and interstate 15, but a popular choice, serving churros, fried bananas and tamales.

Romero said that the process of becoming a permitted street vendor required him getting a license from the health department and proving knowledge about food handling and preparing safety.

El Tigre Churros y Platanos also had to partner with a local restaurant which essentially allows and will confirm to the city that El Tigre is storing equipment and doing some food preparation there before going out to the streets to sell. Romero said the process is worth it.

“The idea to start a business was to not be depended on anyone and be my own boss and advance forward faster than working for someone else,” he said. “This is a family business, made up of my wife and two children. And we work here, the four of us.”

His stand is one the top spots to visit in San Diego according to some restaurant review sites.

A dozen standing customers are waiting in line at any given time talking and interacting with each other, and Romero remembers many of them by name. He described this as common.

“I have all kinds of customers,” Romero said. “It’s a street business and that’s its appeal- eating in the street, feeling free. That’s what people like.”

It’s something that has taken a lot of work to build, he said, pointing out that he has been selling in the same spot on University Avenue and 36th Street for 12 years now. Romero sets up his stand five days a week, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and spends an additional four hours preparing the food before opening. Romero said the experience he delivers to his customers is unique.

“It’s a totally different environment from that of an establishment,” he said. “For me, the appeal in street food is that the customer has contact with the cook directly. We’re talking and conversing about how your work was and that’s the attractiveness of the street stand, and that always make people feel more comfortable. It brings them more attention.”

Photo by Cristofer Garcia
Mario Romero, owner of El Tigre Churros y Platanos, is slicing up bananas as a group of regulars gathers around his food stand.

This report was a collaboration between NBC 7 and the SDSU School of Journalism and Media Studies.

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