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The Fight for L.A.'s Street Food Vendors

Getting a permit is difficult and expensive, and the state food code is prohibitively complex for small-scale vendors. A coalition is working to help protect this important economic and cultural tradition.

Outside the Big Saver Foods market in the small Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, a cluster of sidewalk vendors wait in the parking lot for hungry customers to finish their shopping and stop by for a pupusa or an agua fresca. Follow the tantalizing scent of smoke and grilled chicken that wafts through the air, and you’ll arrive at Pollos Asado El Jaimito, where vendor Jaimie Trujillo is cooking up whole, spatchcocked birds on his outdoor grill.

Trujillo has been making his living as a street vendor in L.A. for three years, but he has only been setting up at this spot for a couple of months. At his previous location, local authorities sometimes cracked down on him for operating without a vending permit. Once, he even had to run and hide from them, lugging his entire grill full of chickens with him on foot so it wouldn’t be confiscated.

Still, Trujillo hasn’t tried to get a permit, because of the warnings he’s heard from other vendors. “They say it’s very difficult, because you need permission, kitchen licenses, and all these permits,” he says in Spanish.

Trujillo’s situation isn’t an uncommon one for street vendors in L.A., where the practice of selling food outdoors has been strictly regulated since tamaleros from Mexico and Chinese immigrants operating pushcarts became commonplace in the city around the turn of the 20th Century.