By Teresa Liu

Torrance recently launched a task force to promote safe sidewalk vending, a move city officials say is intended to ensure compliance with various business regulations but which opponents say lacks an effective educational component to help vendors get permits.

The sidewalk vending compliance team is composed of city code enforcement officers and police and fire department personnel, as well as inspectors from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. One of its main purposes is to encourage vendors to be properly permitted, said Torrance Community Development Director Michelle Ramirez.

The number of vendors, most of whom sell tacos, fruits and juice, significantly increased over the past six months, Ramirez said. At its height, around eight unlicensed taco vendors were operating in Torrance at the same time.

“This is not just a city of Torrance problem,” Ramirez said. “This is a problem throughout the state of California, especially here in the South Bay, where these sidewalk vendors are not going through that proper permitting process and instead just coming into different cities and starting to sell their products.”

Torrance requires all sidewalk vendors to have a city-issued sidewalk vendor permit, business license and a California-issued sellers permit. Food or beverage vendors also need to comply with the food safety requirements set by the California Retail Food Code and obtain additional county public health permits.

But none of the vendors had acquired a business license from the city. Only one fruit vendor had a county health permit, Ramirez said.

“I have no problem with people trying to make a living and trying to feed their families,” said Torrance Councilmember Aurelio Mattucci, “but they have to do it the legal way, like every other businesses in the city.”

In many cases, sidewalk vendors set up their carts right in front of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants, significantly affecting their sales, Mattucci said.

The city has launched “a heavy educational campaign” to try to persuade the unpermitted vendors to obtain their licenses, Ramirez said. It has also created flyers that outline the process in relatively simple steps, which staff handed directly to the vendors during recent inspections. But the city has yet to hear from any of them about an interest in becoming licensed, she said.

“I really need to stress, it’s not that we don’t want them. That’s not what we’re doing here,” Ramirez said. “We just want them to become permitted and go through (the same) process like any other business that we require in our city go through.”

But obtaining the proper permits could be an expensive and sometimes confusing process for the food vendors, said Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City, a community development organization.

The group co-founded the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign, a citywide effort to create a permit system for vendors, which resulted in the 2018 Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, a California law that decriminalized street vending.

The startup cost for a fruit vendor in Los Angeles County, according to a cost breakdown the group had put together several years ago, is $22,776. For a hot dog vendor, it costs $37,095. This includes fees for the county health permit, city sidewalk vending permit, the one-time cost for a plan check and a food manager’s permit, as well as space rental and cart costs, Espinoza said.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law state Senate Bill 972, which made it easier for sidewalk vendors, including those with carts and stands, to acquire the necessary local health permits and avoid criminal penalties.

But since that law is relatively new, and the county’s health department is still building its system to implement it, a lot of vendors don’t know where to get their permits, Espinoza said.

“What I’ve seen in some other cities too is that cities are really quick to invest in compliance teams,” Espinoza said, “but they’re not really focused on the education piece.”

Putting flyers up or posting informational videos on websites are not enough, he said. Instead, Espinoza recommended that the cities invest in educational workers who can walk the streets and talk to vendors and help them navigate the permit process.

It’s not the city’s role to manage competition, Espinoza added.

“If the vendors are blocking the sidewalk or blocking the door, like yes, that’s not good,” he said. “There’s laws against that. They shouldn’t be blocking the public right of way. If there’s a public health hazard or sort of a safety issue, then the city should step in. But any city shouldn’t manage competition.”

Ramirez, however, said she doesn’t believe the process a street vendor has to go through to obtain permits is difficult.

“If that was the case, then we wouldn’t have any businesses within any of our communities” Ramirez said. “So it’s just a matter of them following the same laws that our brick-and-mortar businesses follow.

“I think one of the things that’s very important here is that the city is trying to protect our community,” she added. “We want to make sure that the health and safety of our community is our top priority.”