Street vendor located on the edge of a car wash lot, San Francisco, United States, Credit: Ginette Wessel, 2014.

Negotiating Informality: Social and Economic Strategies of Latino Food Vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District

By Ginette Wessel & Sofia Airaghi

Introduction

In the US, the practice of street food vending has historically been perceived as an unorganized and marginal activity conducted by minority populations. Urban historians have traced adverse views from a variety of prejudices that relate to unsanitary practices, low-economic status, and illegality.[1] Unfavorable views can also be linked to the mid-20th century modernist planning and design ideals that created orderly, auto-centered city streets and did away with activities perceived as inefficient and unproductive that impeded upon this view.[2] In 1963, anthropologist Clifford Geertz studied street markets and bazars in Indonesia claiming that they hampered the development of a western-style, firm-centered economy.[3] Opposed to efficiency and organization, he suggested street vending relied on practices rooted in local customs and social exchange. Growing anxieties over the sanitation of food handling throughout the 19th and 20th centuries also contributed to a widely held view that food prepared on the street was unhygienic and unhealthy.[4] Given these judgments, little research addresses the potential benefits street vendors bring to communities and the constraints that vendors face when operating a productive business.

While there is scholarship that investigates vending in developing countries,[5] few have attempted to explore the ways in which vendors support the low-income American economy. The lack of attention is linked to vendors’ low levels of economic productivity, ethnic unfamiliarity, and perceived illegality of undocumented work practices. Only recently have the US government and restaurant industry started to document the number of food vendors in cities. Today, food vending is gaining validity as a respectable and stable occupation among affluent population with the recent growth of new, vibrantly branded, and highly equipped food trucks. Public acceptance on behalf of middle-income populations combined with a declining US economy has prompted this diverse and increasingly trendy food industry to grow rapidly in recent years.[6] Local organizations that focus on food accessibility are also beginning to find vendors resourceful in areas that lack food options.[7] While these trends promote broader acceptance of street food vending, little is known about the impacts on the established population of Latino vendors or why government officials and city residents still recognize them as illegal, low-income, and unsanitary.[8]

Formal and informal sectors of the economy are most often posited in binary terms, with informality placed in a subordinate position to those activities conventionally accepted as legal. However, visual, social, and legal variances occur between these general categories creating a spectrum of possibilities. For example, formal sectors such as restaurants may hire undocumented workers to lower production costs or neglect to file taxes, whereas informal sectors, such as street food vending, have established vendor associations in an effort to navigate the regulatory climate of municipalities. These devious business practices and self-organized collaborative efforts blur clear definitions of informal and formal sectors. Furthermore, the wide variety of food vending types, such as paleta and tamale pushcart vendors, taco truck vendors, and gourmet food truck vendors, also convolutes any clear definition of informality. A range of different vendors may be identified depending on social and cultural backgrounds, cultural foods, food prices, and types of vending units. Considering the pushcart vendors who legally operate with permits and the gourmet vendors who fail to document workers because of high insurance costs, formal and informal categories do not apply. Yet these nuances are ignored in city-wide policies that seek to manage vending growth.

Mapping the Discourse of Informality

Informality has traditionally been discussed and analyzed in developing countries where declining economic productivity, reduced investments, and limited technological progress perpetuate the growth of unregulated activities and limit the growth of the formal sector.[9] In the US, however, planners and policy makers have assumed that informal activities are either limited in scope, and therefore safe to ignore, or criminal in nature, and thus need to be opposed.[10] Informal economy discourse in the American context is largely based in studies of low-wage employment among ethnic groups and immigrant neighborhoods, particularly the Latino barrios of southwestern states.[11] Amongst this demographic, official citizenship is low and the means of acquiring documentation is challenging, which leads many to find work outside of the documented employment sector. Street vendors, garment workers, construction workers, gardeners, janitors, window washers, nannies, and day laborers are some of the many forms of low-wage employment addressed as informal.

In the 1970s, British anthropologist Keith Hart’s research in Ghana became well known for referring to small-scale enterprises as the “informal sector.” Discontent with the ambiguity among western terms such as low-productivity urban sector, underemployed and unemployed, and traditional sector, Hart claimed there were “axes of differentiation [within small scale distribution types of employment], such as the nature of the trading medium (market stalls, roadside booths, hawking) and, more importantly, the commodity being traded”.[12] Hart argued the distinction between informal and formal sectors rests on self-employment versus wage-earning jobs that are recruited on a permanent and regular basis. He further categorized informal income opportunities as legitimate and illegitimate, distinguishing activities such as hustling, gambling, smuggling, and petty theft. Moreover, Hart acknowledged the position of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which reported in 1972 that the informal sector consists of a range of self-employed persons conducting jobs characterized by ease of entry, reliance on indigenous resources, family ownership of enterprise, small scale operation, and skills acquired outside the formal school system.[13]

A substantial amount of scholarship focuses on the organizing logic between informal and formal economies suggesting that the informal economy in many countries is related to the rise and uneven nature of global capitalist development.[14] During the period of economic restructuring in the 1970s informal activities expanded due to the impact of international competition, which led to diffusion of low labor costs across countries and workers reacting against the state’s regulation of the economy (e.g. taxes and social legislation).[15] Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes note, “informalization is not a social process developing outside the purview of the state; it is instead the expression of a new form of control characterized by disenfranchisement of a large sector of the working class . . . the loss of formal control over these activities is compensated by the short-term potential for legitimation and renewed economic growth that they offer”.[16] Furthermore, the relationship between governments and informal activities becomes most apparent during periods of economic recession and high unemployment.

Trends in Current Vending Research

While geographers studying the US informal economy in the 1980s relied upon quantitative analysis of employment growth, state regulation, and market dynamics to explain the conditions under which the production of informal activities existed, anthropological and sociological scholars have also analyzed informal activities on the ground, with careful attention to the operations and stories produced by participants.[17] This approach allows for a rich and more full description of the heterogeneity of activities occurring and the variety of factors that lead individuals to make occupational choices.

A variety of these works specifically address informality and food vending in cities such as Portland, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley. Christian Zlolniski’s work shows that vending and janitorial employment is not merely a carelessly improvised set of survival strategies undertaken by unskilled immigrants disconnected from Silicon Valley’s formal economy, rather he finds that many vend to supplement other wages they earn in low-skilled jobs in the formal sector or that vending represents an employment alternative to the low-paid and labor-intensive jobs in the formal economy.[18] Zlolniski’s work, along with Weber and Muñoz’s research on food vending in Los Angeles, reveals the significance of personal and family circumstances, such as childcare, spouse schedules, and elderly care, that factor into choosing a flexible type of self-employment.[19] Also, Mark Vallianatos advocates for the legalization of sidewalk food vending in Los Angeles citing a number of benefits such as improving access to healthy food, opportunities for entrepreneurship, and neighborhood vitality, walkability, and safety.[20] Another research effort investigating Portland, addresses the importance of an open, flexible, and inclusive regulatory approach among governments when managing street vending, particularly for immigrants and those without ready access to capital.[21] Moreover, these investigations improve the knowledge gap between regulatory management of vending and vendors’ daily operations and economic challenges.

Tracing Vending Activity in the Mission District

This research investigated the presence and stories of Latino vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District over a ten-week period, in the summer of 2014. Given the lack of information regarding vendors’ operations and economic challenges, our study uses ethnographic and grounded theory methods to understand street vendors’ family and social obligations, daily work habits, and work-related decision making. Before entering the field, the geographic limits of the study were defined as the Mission District (District 9), an area in San Francisco with a dense Latino population.[22] The rich history of Latino food vendors in the region and other California cities reinforced the decision to focus this demographic. First, the density of Latino vendors in the neighborhood was mapped by walking throughout the neighborhood at various times of the day, surveying the environment, and keeping in mind the locations of transit stations, parks, and elementary schools that generate activity with vendors (Fig. 1). Vendors were chosen at random and observed to understand their flow of business. If the vendor was available to talk, they were first engaged in casual conversation. Vendors were informed that we were researchers investigating their work as a vendor, and that their identity would not be revealed.[23] We attempted to affect the setting as little as possible by remaining self-aware of our own presence in the space when patrons were present. Often, vendors were willing to answer questions while taking care of business simultaneously. Towards the end of the conversation, we confirmed the vendor’s willingness to have follow-up conversations in the future.

Figure 1. Mission District vendor map. Source: Authors.

Eight vendors were interviewed of the seventeen total vendors identified throughout the ten-week period: three food truck vendors, two vendors with trailers, two pushcart vendors, and one vendor with a portable table.[24] We interviewed this select eight based on their willingness to share knowledge, yet their spatial distribution in the Mission District and their variety of vending types (e.g. mobile trucks, stationary trailers, and pushcarts) provided a representative sample of the vending landscape. We talked with six men and two women, one vendor in his 20s, two vendors in their 30s, three in their 40s, and two in their 50s, all Latino from Mexico or Central America. Of the eight vendors we spoke with, all but one were owners of their establishments, some had been in the US for decades while others were more recent immigrants, and they each had experience working in the restaurant industry. Despite the fact that the majority of vendors identified were male, we were able to speak with two female vendors, one in her early-30s who sold tacos at a weekly market, and the other woman in her mid-40s who sold hotdogs from a pushcart. Pushcart vendors were hesitant to share their stories on a couple of occasions and while the precise reasons are unknown, we conclude that these vendors may be concerned with protecting their business against police or health code enforcement or news media, occurrences that further contribute to perceptions of vending as illegal. Interviews were conducted in Spanish, lasted from thirty minutes to two hours and consisted of open-ended questions about the basic processes of vendor operations, employment history, family and friend networks, and geographic migrations. Follow up conversations were conducted after reviewing the initial conversations to clarify ambiguities in vendor responses. Additionally, vendors’ locations were observed and documented using field notes, sketches, and photographs.

The Physical and Cultural Landscape of Vending

Beginning as a religious Spanish settlement, the Mission District was named after the oldest building in San Francisco, the Mission San Francisco de Asís, which was constructed in 1776. In the early 20th century, the neighborhood expanded with Irish immigrants who were later displaced with the rapid arrival of Latino immigrants in the postwar period. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Mexican, Central American, and Puerto Rican immigrants seeking work replaced waves of European immigrants that moved to suburban areas.[25] By the 1970s, San Francisco’s Latino population had reached over 70,000.[26] Today, these transnational connections from San Francisco to various parts of Latin America are well formed and constantly adapting. More recently, local residents are concerned that gentrifying forces, brought about by the influx of young high-income professionals, are pricing out much of the existing population, as housing and rental costs increase.[27] City-wide eviction notices increased 57 percent in the past five years[28] and in the Mission District the Latino population has declined by 22 percent since 2000.[29]

Despite these socio-economic changes, the Mission District is still the heart of Latino culture in San Francisco with a 41 percent Latino population compared to 14 percent in San Francisco as a whole (Fig. 2). Visually, there are many aspects that culturally link this neighborhood to homelands in Central and South America. Colorful murals, commercial signage in Spanish, and several bilingual schools and community centers are a few examples of Latino expression. The Mission District has become famous for its bountiful tradition of vivid murals and street art, especially Balmy Alley, which is lined with artwork that depict different aspects of history, social movements, spiritual and religious figures (Fig. 3). As Summers Sandoval states, “once in the city Latinas and Latinos engaged a multifaceted process of “homemaking,” re-creating the tastes, sounds, and sights of the familiar”.[30] These material elements of the landscape create links to other countries and are a vibrant hybrid of cultural references, expanding notions of home, citizenship and belonging.

Figure 2. US Census Bureau, “San Francisco Latino Population by Block Group: 2010.” American Fact Finder. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.
Figure 3. Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco. Source: Author photograph, Nov 11, 2014.

Food vendors primarily congregate on Mission Street between 24th Street and 16th Street (Fig. 1). This area has high car and pedestrian traffic and is also a main passageway for buses and the underground train system. The Mission District houses seven public elementary schools and the children and parents, especially those who walk or take public transportation to get to school, are a significant customer base for the vendors. During summer breaks, vendors see less business and therefore have a less routine vending route. In addition, Mission Street is a main commercial thoroughfare with high numbers of Latino markets, clothing stores, electronic repair shops, pawn shops, thrift stores, liquor stores, bodegas, banks, bars, restaurants, cafes, and clubs that together form a hub of Latino culture in San Francisco and several vendors choose their location based on this reality. Vendors strategically locate their operations in the Mission corridor to reach their Latino customer base and to use their location to assure the perception and presentation of their cultural authenticity.

Although many food vendors in the Mission District do not receive a great deal of coverage on social media or in the blogosphere, many are able to achieve a high level of physical visibility. Vendors maximize this visibility by displaying large bilingual signage, raising colorful flags, and placing memorable visual and cultural imagery on their trucks or trailers (Fig. 4). Additionally, their visibility on the street forms a cultural connection for the community through the representation of their business.

Figure 4. Street vendor on Mission Street. Source: Author photograph, July 3, 2014.

Of the eight vendors we spoke with, we choose three vendors to pursue further conversations with based on the variety of their business experience and willingness to participate in follow up conversations. Each vendor migrated to the US, established a business, and acquired vending licenses at different points in time. Bernardo, originally from Mexico City, has lived in the US for over 20 years and worked in the restaurant and automotive industries until opening his own taco business out of vending trailer two years ago with the help of his wife and brother-in-law. Another vendor, Javier, also came to the US 20 years ago, but from El Salvador, and worked in restaurants until he started his bacon wrapped hot dog business three years ago with just $150 dollars that he had borrowed from his mother. Unlike Bernardo and Javier, Cesar has been between Honduras and California for the past four years and worked for the Red Cross in Honduras before working in a food truck selling burritos and hamburgers. Each of the vendors’ businesses have approved health permits from the county and parking permits either with the Public Works Department at the City of San Francisco or property owners.

After analyzing the stories of these three vendors, it is apparent that they have an integrated relationship with the street and play an important role in the daily happenings of the neighborhood. Vendors who have lived in San Francisco for several years become an integral part of the community. Bernardo mentioned, “My life is already made here and this country has granted me good opportunities. It gave me my legalization, my papers, I have opened my path here.”[31] In addition to establishing ties with the community, food vending locations simultaneously become a site for social interaction and unity within the urban landscape serving as a gathering place for family, friends, and neighborhood acquaintances. For instance, other food vendors and friends working at nearby restaurants and stores frequently visit one of the hot dog vendors we interviewed. At any given moment, the three stools situated in front of the vendor’s trailer may be filled with patrons chatting about soccer, news, or recent crimes in the area. The vendors also spend a significant amount of time with their own families in public space as many elders and children come along to help. Additionally, the vendors’ repeated presence on the street creates a dual role of food distributor and guardian of the community. By having this active and noticeable presence 8 to 12 hours a day that creates repeated engagement and interaction in the street, the vendors establish themselves as anchors in the community.

Vendor Spatial Organization and Adaptation

Vendors pursue different spatial strategies depending on their unit type, their location options or lack thereof, and their customer base. Pushcarts, which have considerably lower startup costs and are often a point of entry into running a vending business, are the most spatially flexible. Although pushcart vendors typically do not have permits to vend in the Mission District, the regulatory authorities and police often overlook these mobile units as long as they do not pose a threat to security or block sidewalks. Javier, who owns a trailer unit, expressed his grievances that he preferred not to vend at the Pride Parade because not only were the permit fees too high to ensure making a profit, but police unfairly enforced his trailer while ignoring pushcarts who are able to move at a moments notice. In these situations, pushcart vendors have more points of access to customers; however, their businesses are typically less sustainable. Furthermore, pushcart vendors generally tend to stay in the same location in an unofficial claiming of territory to maintain continuity with customers. While some vendors strategically locate farther away from competing vendors who are selling the same product, other vendors who have established relationships may vend together with separate carts (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Street vendors selling fruit and flowers on the plaza of a subway station. Source: Author photograph, July 10, 2014.

In the case of Bernardo, he originally wanted to locate his trailer on the main thoroughfare of Mission Street but because of high permit fees for city streets, he ended up privately renting a neglected portion of a car wash lot a couple of blocks away. Bernardo’s distance from the main thoroughfare means he had to invent creative ways of advertising his business. He stated, “In the beginning, only my family knew that I cooked, that my tacos were good, but from there I would stand outside at the door and I would tell people to stop and try. They would come to eat, and the word would spread.”[32] Although he is slightly farther away from the concentration of pedestrian traffic and other businesses he is able to avoid interaction with the City of San Francisco for spatial permitting, utilize outdoor seating, and host a jazz band on the weekends (Fig. 6). Over time he has been able to create a more welcoming environment by negotiating an enclosed seating area with the lot owner over concerns of children wandering too close to the street.

Figure 6. Street vendor located on the edge of a car wash lot. Source: Author photograph, July 10, 2014.

Cesar, an employee on a taco truck owned by a restaurant family, recounts the history of the establishment and says that the truck has been parking in its exact location since 1996. The owners originally chose the location for its proximity to the neighborhood health clinic which functions as a central point in the community. The truck has always parked on the side of the street closest to the clinic with its serving window directly facing the parking lot and the pedestrian flows from the subway station towards the residential area of the Mission. On one occasion, the truck parked on the opposite side of the street and business suffered roughly a 50 percent decline. Not only is location important but equally so is orientation within the space, as other points of reference and overall visibility in the urban environment can help increase patronage.

When vendors choose their location, it is a conscious decision that is informed by social networks and the urban landscape of schools, commercial areas, and transit points (Fig. 1). Yet vendors who are told to move locations due to new public right-of-way regulations or are given a limited number of parking options by the City of San Francisco are very aware of their constraints and in response, they develop other methods to compensate and compete.

Economic Strategizing Among Latino Vendors

The physical and economic conditions of the Mission District ultimately test the entrepreneurial skills of Latino vendors. While some may be forced to close their vending operations due to lack of profit, others prevail by establishing self-sustaining businesses. Contrary to popular belief that street vendors have few business skills and choose vending as a last resort occupation, our conversations revealed that vendors actively pursue their livelihood with vending. Vendors must also negotiate a variety of parameters established by the limits of space, time, and regulatory bodies in their daily operations. Over time, these challenges strengthen their entrepreneurial skills and street knowledge allowing them to make strategic business decisions that increase their opportunities for upward job mobility such as scaling to their vending business or owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Daily Operations and Constraints

Each vendor in the Mission District operates within specific spatial parameters imposed by the sidewalk, the public street, or private property. Sidewalk vendors must navigate a narrow width of pavement predominantly allocated to the continuous movement of pedestrians. Staking an unobtrusive location on the edge of the sidewalk means that they must work from small scale vending units that are mobile, both limiting the variety of food they are able to prepare and requiring physical strength. Conversely, public parking spaces along streets allow for more full-scale vending trucks and trailers, but require an expensive initial fee of $764 and $135 annually thereafter. These vendors use personal automobiles to occupy the metered parking space overnight. Privately owned properties carry the fewest regulations in commercially zoned areas and are the preferred choice if located along a thoroughfare. Short-term lease agreements negotiated between the vendor and the property owner typically allow for greater flexibility in terms of space for seating or storage. However, these vendors are often concerned about displacement with the onset of new development. In addition, each space has its own physical assets and obstacles. Noise, direct sunlight, car pollution, graffiti, lack of pedestrian traffic, and wide streets impact a vending business; yet, nearby destinations such as Best Buy, Costco, or a hospital can provide consistent pedestrian traffic.

Navigating spatial parameters requires vendors to have working knowledge of land use and vending regulations in the City and County of San Francisco. Many vendors expressed the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining a vending permit for a location. Others expressed the need to properly handle and prepare food on a continuous basis in case a health inspector visits unannounced. Javier immediately pointed out his County Health Department certificate that officially approves his operations. With great pride in the cleanliness of his trailer, he also compared his business to fellow unpermitted vendors who he felt were doing a disservice to their customers. He went as far as to describe the improper handling of hotdogs from a fellow vendor who picked up large quantities in Los Angeles and drove them unrefrigerated to San Francisco. From Javier’s point of view, the police should be more supportive of his work and focus their efforts on food handling practices among unlicensed vendors. Unlicensed vendors are also aware of regulations and are able to leverage their mobility when being approached by police. As such, vendors will congregate and look out for one another (Fig. 5). According to city policy, all vendors, licensed or unlicensed, should be aware of how to properly operate their business.

Just as permits can be a challenge to obtain and maintain, all vendors stressed that a lack of sufficient finances made it difficult to start or expand their business. Borrowing money from family and friends, rather than taking out loans, is preferred among the vendors. The small amount of food that the unit can hold and the relatively low price points, at $2.00 for a taco and $3.50 for a bacon wrapped hot dog, often translates to small profits and slow growth. Per our conversations, some vendors described the exact cost of ingredients, the best stores to locate the most affordable food, and clever ways to minimize waste. Each vendor recalled a difficult time of slow business and agreed that financial planning can determine a business’s success. Low profit margins also present a barrier to advancing to a current vending unit, operating multiple units, or even opening a brick and mortar location. Owners shared a vision for advancement where they could employ others, work less, generate more income, and continue to grow as an established business owner.

Connected Economies

Tracing the path of a vendor’s daily operations reveals a variety of linked economic activities. Multiple times a week, vendors purchase goods from wholesale markets such as Restaurant Depot or Costco. These wholesale companies provide a variety of ingredients and offer supplies that span the needs of an entire business from perishable foods to propane refills. Their role in the everyday life of vendors is essential as the food vendor operators depend on their low costs and regular stock of supplies and ingredients. With regards to the vending unit itself, owners house them in storage facilities, commissaries, and unused parking lots. Furthermore, automobile manufacturing and repair businesses are essential for designing trailers and trucks to fit the proper kitchen equipment to code requirements and fixing worn engines.

The restaurant industry is another economic actor that generates competition and serves as an incubator for future business owners. Per our field conversations, vendors in general believe that restaurants pose little threat to their operations unless they serve comparable food products. Conversely, restaurants are more likely to express discontent towards vendors for fear that they could take their business. While no direct instances of restaurant conflict arose in conversation, some city officials are known for siding with the protectionist views of restaurant associations.[33] Viewed differently, this tension could lead to healthy and creative economic growth through marketing and food experimentation.

The recent development of web-based firms such as ZeroCater and Cater2.me act as a mediator between downtown office workers who order lunch in groups and vendors’ ethnic foods in the Mission District. Initially hesitant to take part in ZeroCater’s services due to the 20 percent share of profits collected per order, Bernardo eventually agreed to join the company after increasing the price point of his food to compensate for the added fees. Today, catering orders through ZeroCater’s website provide nearly half of Bernardo’s profits and serve as an ensured revenue stream leaving him less worried about business stability. Bernardo mentioned,

“Now business is very strong [from ZeroCater]. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I had sales today [at the trailer], because I know that I have this income [from catering] as well.”[34] In this instance, online catering services connect Bernardo’s business with distant office workers in the Financial District and provide him with access to a new lunchtime clientele. Catering orders through ZeroCater make street vendors visible to office workers, allow vendors to scale their business to maximize profits, and sustain vendors during periods of slow business. At the same time, ZeroCater achieves significant profits through a percentage of low-priced foods.

During fieldwork, new wave food trucks that serve gourmet meals emerged as an operationally separate set of vendors based on the close proximity of the South of Market (SOMA) Street Food Park to the Mission District. The park, which opened in 2011, is well known among the area’s burgeoning technology firm office workers seeking outdoor food options. The expensive rental space in the park and competitive menu prices were the primary reasons the Latino vendors preferred to remain at their current locations. Despite these distinctions, we observed business professionals frequenting the Latino vendors. Our observations lead us to conclude that Latino vendors, who serve low to high-income customers in a good location, may have an advantage in attracting more customers over new wave food trucks that primarily cater to medium to high-income individuals.

Conclusion: Informality, Place, and Agency

Informality as a way of describing street vending activity reinforces ideas of inadequacy as compared to the formal employment sectors. In the food vending industry, informality may refer to unlicensed vendors, undocumented immigrants, unsanitary food handling practices, and low-income employment that are each reinforced by ethnic unfamiliarity, linguistic barriers, and presence on the street. These views drive efforts to regulate street vendors, disempowering those with small businesses that do not conform to policies or visions of empowered officials. Through our observations and conversations with vendors in the Mission District, we find that these perspectives neglect vendors’ efforts to sustain families and build community. We found that vendors had control over their businesses, ways to compensate for difficult times, knowledge of regulations, educated backgrounds in the food service industry, clear and informed decision making processes, and a vision for how to advance their business in the future. Most vendors showed us how they overcome obstacles when negotiating the constraints of time, space, and regulatory bodies. These vendors also activate and participate in urban space by creating a social atmosphere, acting as neighborhood guardians. Their repeated presence creates a familiar setting for the community and represents a strong cultural sector of society.

Our research led us to discover the inventive ways in which vendors develop a robust network with old and new industries to support their daily operations. Technology firms show the productive ways to grow and expand vendor’s profits by bridging disparate populations and increasing access to customers. Notably, our research shows little relationship between the new wave food truck industry and Latino vendors in the Mission.[35] Their lack of interaction suggests that the new wave industry targets a customer population with moderate to high income and that their location choices in urban space reflect this demographic. Furthermore, we observed a variety of trends among vendors that destabilize categories of formal and informal activities, such as building social ties within a community through repeated presence in a location, locating on private property to establish permanency in a neighborhood, and negotiating over temporary leases on private property to obtain permanent structures. Moreover, vendors’ ambitions to eventually own a restaurant show their desire for a formal fixed business.

The shifting social demographics and rising cost of land in the Mission District present new challenges. Increased enforcement, limited available private property, and the loss of networks of friends and family who may need to relocate, are some of the potential issues. In a competitive land market, debates emerge over legitimate uses and appropriate social groups. Converging opinions between vendors and nearby property owners also leads to active contests and litigation over the right to use space. Regardless of these setbacks, this research shows vendors are highly adaptable with established skills sets and operational strategies for upward mobility.

Without a more complete understanding of vendors’ activities, policy and investment measures will continue to contradict or neglect vendor operations and needs. City officials would be well advised to consider equitable treatment of food vendors and avoid blanket policies that neglect their diverse circumstances, including use of the limiting categories of formal and informal economic activities.


[1] Daniel Burnstein, “The Vegetable Man Cometh: Political and Moral Choices in Pushcart Policy in Progressive Era New York City,” New York History 77, no. 1 (1996), 60; Daniel Bluestone, “The Pushcart Evil: Peddlers, Merchants, and New York City’s Streets, 1890-1940,” Journal of Urban History 18, no. 1 (1991), 80-81, Ray Bromley, “Street Vending and Public Policy: A Global Review,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 29, no. 1 (2000), 6-10.

[2] John C. Cross, “Street Vendors, Modernity, and Postmodernity: Conflict and Compromise in the Global Economy,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 20 (2000): 35.

[3] Clifford Geertz, Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963).

[4] Burnstein, “Pushcart,” 60.

[5] Research on food vending in developing countries shows frequent patterns of migration, rising economic and social inequalities, and local political factors influence the growth and decline of vendors. Some sources include, Irene Tinker, Street Foods: Urban Food and Employment in Developing Countries (New York: Oxford, 1996); John Cross and Alfonso Morales, eds. Street Entrepreneurs: People, Place, and Politics in A Local and Global Perspective (London: Routledge, 2007).

[6] Andrew Alvarez, “IBISWorld Industry Report 0D4322-Food trucks,” IBISWorld 2015, accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/food-trucks.html

[7] Deepti Hajela, “NYC uses food trucks to bring summer meals to kids,” Star Tribune, July 29, 2014, 1; Steve Holt, “Food trucks move beyond hipster fad to help the hungry,” TakePart, June 13, 2010, accessed September 20, 2014, http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/06/12/wheels-heal.

[8] Ernesto Hernández-López, “LA’s Taco Truck War: How Law Cooks Food Culture Contests,” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 43, no. 1 (2011): 233.

[9] Hernando de Soto, The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989), 173.

[10] Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, “ Introduction,” in The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, ed. Vinit Mukhija et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 3.

[11] Daniel Dohan, The Price of Poverty: Money, Work, and Culture in the Mexican American Barrio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Kathleen Staudt, Free Trade? Informal Economies at the U.S-Mexico Border (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

[12] Keith Hart, “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11, no. 1 (1973): 71.

[13] International Labour Office, Employment, Incomes, and Equality: A Strategy for Increasing Productive Employment in Kenya, (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1972), 6.

[14] Nezar AlSayyad, “Urban Informality as a ‘New’ Way of Life,” in Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia, ed. Ananya Roy et al. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 15; Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes, “World Underneath: The Origins, Dynamics, and Effects of the Informal Economy,” in The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries, ed. Alejandro Portes, et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 32; Sassen-Koob, Saskia, “New York City’s Informal Economy,” in The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries, ed. Alejandro Portes et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 61.

[15] Castells and Portes, “World Underneath,” 28.

[16] Castells and Portes, “World Underneath,” 27.

[17] Margaret Crawford, “The Garage Sale as Informal Economy and Transformative Urbanism,” in The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor ed. Vinit Mukhija et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 21; Marta López-Garza, “A Study of the Informal Economy and Latina/o Immigrants in Greater Los Angeles,” in Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy: The Metamorphosis of Southern California, ed. Marta López-Garza et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 141; Lorena Muñoz, “From Street Child Care to Drive-Throughs: Latinas Reconfigure and Negotiate Street Vending Spaces,” in Immigrant Women workers in the Neoliberal Age ed. Nilda Flores-González et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 133; Clair M. Weber, “Latino Street Vendors in Los Angeles: Heterogeneous Alliances, Community-Based Activism, and the State,” in Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy: The Metamorphosis of Southern California, ed. Marta López-Garza et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 217; Christian Zlolniski, Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 9.

[18] Zlolniski, Janitors, 75.

[19] Weber, “Vendors in Los Angeles,” 217; Muñoz, “Latinas,” 133.

[20] Mark Vallianatos, “A More Delicious City: How to Legalize Street Food,” in The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, ed. Vinit Mukhija et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 218.

[21] Ginny Browne, Will Dominie, and Kate Mayerson, “Keep Your Wheels On: Mediating Informality in the Food Cart Industry,” in The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor, ed. Vinit Mukhija et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 257.

[22] In Mission District, 41 percent of the population is of Latino ethnicity and 37 percent of residents speak only Spanish at home, San Francisco Planning Department, “San Francisco Neighborhood Profiles,” American Community Survey 2006-2010, http://www.sf-planning.org/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=8779.

[23] Vendors were assigned substitute names during data collection to maintain anonymity.

[24] After interviewing eight vendors, we transcribed conversations from Spanish to English, reviewed data for follow-up questions, and began initial coding. Follow-up interviews were conducted with five vendors. After multiple trips to the field, we determined eight vendors, including follow-up interviews, would provide detailed knowledge of vendor operations.

[25] San Francisco Chronicle, A Changing Mission: To Whom does San Francisco’s Oldest Neighborhood Belong? Directed by San Francisco Chronicle, 2014, accessed March 21, 2015, http://www.sfchronicle.com/the-mission/.

[26] Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr., Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 122.

[27] San Francisco Chronicle, A Changing Mission, Directed by San Francisco Chronicle, 2014; Lee Romney, “Upscale Culture and Gang Violence Share a Small Space,” Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2011, accessed September 10, 2014, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/21/local/la-me-mission-district-slayings-20110921

[28] For the year ending February 28, 2015, 2,102 eviction notices were filed with San Francisco Rent Board; The San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, San Francisco’s Eviction Crisis 2015, accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/EvictionSurge.pdf

[29] Rigoberto Hernandez, “Latinos Make Gains Everywhere Except the Mission,” MissionLocal, June 23, 2011, accessed April 24, 2015, http://missionlocal.org/2011/06/latinos-make-gains-everywhere-except-in-the-mission/.

[30] Sandoval, Latinos, 116.

[31] Original statement in Spanish: “Ya mi vida esta hecha aquí y me a brindado buenas oportunidades este país. Me dio mi legalización aquí, mis papeles, me he abierto camino yo aquí.”

[32] Original statement in Spanish: “Al principio, solo mi familia sabia que yo cocinaba, que mis tacos estaban buenos pero de allí yo me ponía allí afuera en la puerta y yo le decía a la gente que pasaran a probar. Venían a comer y ya se corría la voz.”

[33] Erin Norman et al. Street of Dreams: How Cities Can Create Economic Opportunity by Knocking Down Protectionist Barriers to Street Vending (Washington D.C.: Institute for Justice, 2011), 20.

[34] Original statement in Spanish: “Entonces ahorita esta muy fuerte, ahora si que no me preocupo si hay venta o no hay, porque yo se que tengo esta entrada también.”

[35] Later research will examine if the regulatory climate emerging with new wave mobile food vending impacts established vendors in regard to negotiating new spatial constraints using a methodology consistent with this analysis.


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Author Bios

Ginette Wessel is a faculty member in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at San Jose State University and a Doctorial Candidate in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include the mediation between information technology and human experience in contemporary urban settings as well as spatial cognition as a computational basis for urban visualization. She holds a Master of Architecture and a Master of Arts in Geography from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte as well as a Bachelor of Architecture from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Sofia Vivanco Airaghi is completing her degree in Geography and Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include gentrification, transportation infrastructure in Latin America, and equitable housing policy. She has assisted in teaching workshops on public art, architecture, and diaspora of Latin American culture in San Francisco. Sofia has worked with nonprofits such as Youth Art Exchange and Kids in Parks, and co-leads programming for the Multicultural Community Center, at UC Berkeley.

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