Illegal Mission Hot Dog Vendors Uniting To Go Legit

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You can stop smelling your computer screen now...

In a city of organized workers, the illegal hot dog vendors on Mission Street are some of labor's last lone rangers. And vulnerable ones. They have no permits and no rights. They must be on constant alert for the cops, who write them tickets and even haul away their carts. In a 2008 story on underground Mission food, one vendor literally ran away from the approaching officers, pushing his sizzling grill in front of him. Another lady sold quesadillas out of a baby stroller to pass undetected.

Yet the vendors are tired of operating underground. And they're getting organized. With the help of La Cocina incubator kitchen in the Mission, along with the Mission Economic Development Agency, illegal food vendors are forming the Vendedores Unidos -- the "United Sellers" en ingles. The title itself is hot off the grill from last week's meeting.

The meetings have drawn about 10 to 15 vendors so far, who are recruiting more corn cob-, Jello-, and ice cream-sellers in the Mission. A small phalanx met with Supervisor David Campos to talk about their fledgling agenda last week. There's much to be done: As we wrote in 2008, the vendors are stuck in a web of permit regulations that make it all but impossible to get a license in the city:

Police ask for a Social Security number in order to get a permit, when many applicants are undocumented. Then there's the price, with legal carts costing from $8,000 to $12,000 -- plus $1,500 in license fees. Crowded Mission sidewalks leave few spots that would comply with the space requirements, and carts can't offer any food available at an existing brick-and-mortar establishment within two blocks, prohibiting just about every dish in a neighborhood glutted with Latino eateries.
One of Vendedores Unidos' main concerns is ensuring they get a piece of the growing zeitgeist of street food in San Francisco. "With the emergence of cart vendors, they are no longer exclusively low-income or immigrant entrepreneurs," says Caleb Zigas, the director of La Cocina. "It's people of different backgrounds. I think it's exciting, but I think it shifts the conversation away from people who do this out of necessity. I think people who do this out of necessity are very interested in formalization." 

Zigas says he wants to change local laws to legalize the sellers, create more locations where they can sell legally, and even extend the curfew for late-night sales. The program has already secured a few legit places for their vendors. La Cocina contracted with the Rec and Park Department for a spot in Dolores Park and Justin Hermann Plaza for their street vendors.

This will hardly be unique to San Francisco. The hot dog vendors in Los Angeles organized after too many were ticketed by police. Rising Sun Entrepreneurs had success organizing food vendors in Oakland.
And City Hall has shown interest in changing the status quo for the vendors here in San Francisco. Supervisor Bevan Dufty hosted a hearing in the Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee on the issue in March. After meeting with the Vendedores Unidos last week, Supervisor David Campos is interested in introducing legislation to change the city's rules.

"The group are bringing a vision of street vendor friendly zones similar to places in New York City where there's a rich culture of having street vendors," says Sheila Chung Hagen, Campos' legislative aide. "Once things quiet down on some other fronts, we'll be able to take a look at that."

Chung Hagen said they'd have to balance the needs of the street vendors with the brick and mortar restaurants.

It sounds good to Lucero Munoz Arellano, a Mexican native who grills hot dogs at 19th and Mission. Munoz Arellano says the police have hauled her grill away twice, forcing her and her husband to have to fashion a new contraption each time. "I don't want this to happen anymore. Let the people work, we're not doing anything to anyone."

Munoz Arellano's voice will be empowered by those of several others if she can have her way. She's been attending the first meetings of Vendedores Unidos and recruiting other vendors to join up.

We have to wonder: Does a legal hot dog taste as good as an illicit one?  

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