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Food on the Run 

As illegal vendors in the Mission play hide-and-seek with the police, market demand keeps them coming back.

Wednesday, Nov 12 2008

Eddy Marquez had been in business for two hours on the corner of 23rd and Mission, and the wad of worn bills in his pocket was growing at a steady $3-at-a-time clip. On the grill before him sizzled another batch of the bacon-wrapped hot dogs driven up from L.A. each week by a boss he knows only as "El Gordo" ("Fatty" en inglés). The girl peering over the cart's edge wanted hers with ketchup and mustard, no onions.

Walking across the Texas border earlier this year, the 31-year-old Marquez figured he'd work at a restaurant and wire money back to his wife and three kids in El Salvador. What he didn't imagine was that the particular food industry job he'd find would require him to still be ducking authorities six months later.

Marquez answered his cell phone to hear a warning from his cohort who went to go check out a tip from a vendor down the street: Yep, the same beat cop Marquez says ticketed him that previous weekend for operating without a license was headed his way. Marquez calmly twisted the valve of his grill's propane tank to off, told his customers he'd serve them down the block, and jetted down a side street with the urgency of an EMT pushing a gurney into the emergency room.

Undeterred, the mother-and-daughter customers caught up with Marquez around the corner, where he apologized for the inconvenience. "Were the cops coming?" the woman asked in Spanish, looking back warily toward Mission. "Yeah," Marquez answered. The cat-and-mouse routine is just part of selling an illicit hot dog in the Mission. "You'd think I was a criminal," he had said earlier with a chuckle.

Technically, he is. According to city law, operating a pushcart without a permit can carry up to a $500 penalty and six months in jail, though Mission station permit officer Steve Thoma says he's never heard of a vendor serving time. The hot dog vendors hitting the Mission on any given weekend couldn't get a permit if they tried, says beat officer Jerry Neitz: "I don't think you could get a propane-powered, grease-dripping cookie sheet to pass anybody's health inspection."

Still, Neitz makes it clear that police don't view folks like Marquez as hoodlums. Especially in a neighborhood where cops grapple with street gangs and homicides, and where peddling other bootleg goods available on Mission Street is a federal offense — DVDs laid out on the sidewalk, fake Social Security cards from the corner miquero — cracking down on food peddlers isn't a priority. A police officer will usually just tell illegal vendors to leave the first time they are spotted. (And there's a bigger chance of being spotted now that the Board of Supervisors' mandate for more foot patrol officers in 2007 has increased the number of Mission beat cops from three to 12.) The second time, they'll write a ticket for an infraction. The third time, they'll issue a citation for a misdemeanor and haul away the cart.

Yet the vendors almost always come back. Rules and regulations be damned, the marketplace ultimately triumphs, and the Mission has a ready-made black market for Latino food. A supply of customers supportive of immigrants trying to make a buck? Check. Neighborhood folks who shrug off permits as the tool of a bureaucracy and disdain any cop who pesters a dude selling a hot dog to make rent as someone who should find something better to do? Check, check.

Hot dog carts are merely the beginning of the unlicensed options. Women peddle tacos to the day laborers along Cesar Chavez at dawn, a woman sets up her stainless-steel pot of tamales at the 24th Street BART station by early afternoon, and a tough granny outside the bank at 21st and Mission stands sentinel over her Salvadoran pastries and $15 baggies of fresh shrimp all day. For the last six months, a Peruvian man hawking mayo and chile slathered on corn on the cob has pushed a cart around the neighborhood after his hours got cut at a hotel restaurant downtown. Out-of-towners drive in with watermelons in the backs of their trucks seasonally, and a small posse hits the streets with churros on weekends.

They all keep an eye out for the cops. A Nicaraguan woman pulls a blanket across the rice pudding and imported cheese in the back of her pickup truck when her husband posted on the corner signals the cops are coming. Another woman hides her quesadillas in a covered baby carriage: "It stresses me out, but necessity rules," she explains.

While buying from an illegal vendor is not against the law, authorities warn consumers they are eating at their own peril. Marquez shrugs off such concerns, saying the hot dogs El Gordo provides him with are still frozen when he puts them on the grill. He only touches the dogs with tongs, swooping them straight from the grill to the bun that he clasps in a sheet of foil. But not all vendors are so conscientious; police say they received complaints from folks who'd gotten diarrhea after eating the past-expiration hot dogs from another entrepreneur cooking off a hibachi grill last year. Permit officer Thoma says onlookers clapped as police hauled the grill away.

But such tales are rare in a neighborhood where "The Tamale Lady," Virginia Ramos, is revered as a cultural icon, celebrating her birthday annually at the hipster Zeitgeist bar where she peddles her hearty treats.

"We live in a neighborhood where anything goes," says Kosta Eleftheriadis, the owner of 23rd & Mission Produce. He says he snitches to the cops at least once a week about the fly-by-night produce vendors who, with no overhead and no taxes, undercut his prices. "[People] say they're just trying to make a living, but I have to make a living, too." He laments there's not a lot of political will to keep them off the streets. Indeed, even Health Department spokesperson Eileen Shields raves about the bacon-sheathed franks: "Thank God we haven't ruined these people by getting a permit. I'm sure they wouldn't be anywhere as good!"

Many of the vendors say they'd love to go legit, but there are too many obstacles. 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.

Some in the community want to help such entrepreneurs transition away from the mere "income patching" of illegal sales to economic self-sufficiency through a legal gig. (When figuring in the food costs and work hours, most are making far below the minimum wage.) The three-year-old nonprofit La Cocina rents a commercial "incubator kitchen" for a maximum of $15 an hour to low-income immigrant women, many of whom had previously sold home-cooked food on the streets or at under-the-table restaurants operating out of their houses. With 22 current clients, the program's staff helps the cooks calculate the true cost of their food and their labor, increase their production, and develop a brand to promote as a catering service or food booth at farmers' markets.

Getting illegal vendors off the street would cheer up at least one struggling restaurant owner on Mission. Angel Vaca, the owner of Mr. Pollo, bought a hot dog steamer a year ago to compete with the street vendors, but could sell only two or three a day. "My wife said, 'Start selling in the street and you'll make more money. There's no need to have a location!'"

Still hiding out back on 23rd Street, Marquez hardly sees himself as an object of envy as he loads his cooling hot dog cart into the van of another vendor, who will drive it back to Oakland. The police got rid of them for today, but not for long. "It's part of the job to be a little stubborn," he says, and promises to be back on Friday.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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