Fresh off a six-week crackdown on taco stands across town, Santa Ana officials last week pushed for a more hardline stance against street vendors they say are ignoring health codes and blocking pedestrian traffic.

The focus, namely, is on those stationary tents where the smell of the cooking draws patrons by foot, operating at times without the costly sinks and water tanks needed to qualify for a county health permit. 

Right before Christmas, cooks at these stands could only stand by and watch as city and county health workers took thousands of dollars’ worth of their food supplies and trashed them on that basis.

But even after the crackdown, which city officials say shut down 100 vendors in total, the stands are still top of mind for some city officials and residents who complained, as recently as last Tuesday’s regular council meeting, of an “invasion” of their neighborhoods.

“Santa Ana is not defenseless,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra during the discussion he placed on the agenda last Tuesday. 

He called for a “proactive” effort to confiscate unpermitted vendors’ equipment, on top of a resolution stating the city’s opposition to a recent street vending decriminalization bill passed in Sacramento.

Bacerra aimed his remarks not at the permitted pushcart vendors who do business by moving somewhere else, at different parts of the day, but at the unpermitted vendors who stay in one place.

“These stationary sidewalk vendors are setting up right in front of businesses here in Santa Ana and undercutting them,” Bacerra said, echoing a contention by officials in neighboring Anaheim, who voiced concern over street vending’s impacts on brick-and-mortar businesses.

Lining up to speak in agreement that night were dozens of people who described themselves as these very Latino shop owners, as well as speakers who complained of blocked sidewalk wheelchair access and improperly discarded waste. 

But the stands are highly popular in a working-class and immigrant town that’s long incorporated street food into daily life, enjoying meals on walks to and from school and work, be it from trucks and pushcarts, or illuminated tents. 

It’s the latest instance of a marginalized profession caught in flux – going from an informal to a formal economy under a series of state laws in 2018 and 2022, which aimed to clear government hurdles and harsh penalties that either kicked street vendors around or kept them at the fringes of local business communities.

“Prior retail code made it extremely difficult for street vendors to obtain valid permits,” said Councilmember Jonhathan Ryan Hernandez at the meeting. “It’s important to know there are Santa Ana businesses here that started off as food vendors, food trucks, and vendor push carts. I’d like to see us embrace what is very much part of the culture and thread of the City of Santa Ana.”

“This is an industry in transition,” he said.

Others on the council said the state laws limit their ability to regulate sidewalk vending outright.

“Thankfully it has not taken private property rights and the ability of individual private property owners to enforce trespassing laws,” Bacerra said.

Echoing previous remarks by the old mayor, Vicente Sarmiento, Bacerra painted “these vendors that are popping up throughout our county” as the antithesis of small mom-and-pop vendors.

“These are corporations from LA county that send out their teams of employees to open up through our county.”

It was a contention made in Anaheim, as well, when officials ramped up crackdown efforts in response to the concerns of brick-and-mortar business owners. 

Sacramento’s “heart” was in the right place, said Councilmember Thai Viet Phan last Tuesday.

“If you go to the courthouse or 4th Street, you see (street vendors) doing the right thing and unfortunately these big corporations are coming in and finding a loophole, exploiting people — probably trafficking people to make a quick dollar,” she said. “It’s incumbent on our residents, all of us, to stop going to these street vendors.”

Phan also called for additional funding for enforcement when the budget cycle rolls around in June, as well as cooperation with the area’s state representatives in Sacramento for amendments to the state laws.

Mayor Valerie Amezcua, who endorsed the city crackdown in public messaging, echoed earlier public speakers in calling the taco stands a negative quality of life issue.

“I go to Newport Beach? I don’t see them. I go to Tustin? I don’t see them. This weekend I was in Los Alamitos. I didn’t see them. I did not. But once I get into Santa Ana? You get off the 5 freeway there by Bristol and Memory Lane — there’s a big one there,” said Amezcua, who gestured out to city code enforcer Alvaro Nuñez. “Alvaro, go shut that one down.”

“They’re everywhere,” Amezcua added. “And people say, ‘What if they’re businesses from Santa Ana?’ — I welcome businesses to open here … go get your permit from the health department. Follow the rules and the laws that everybody else has to and has been doing. Because that’s what it’s about.”

Councilmember Ben Vazquez said he was troubled by the rhetoric that night, that taco sellers “don’t belong in our neighborhoods.”

He called for better pathways to becoming permitted for the vendors out there who aren’t.

“We need to be more humanizing with our tone and bring them to the table, because this is now state law,” he added. “So how are we gonna work with folks to have permits and regulations, and at the same time, work with the county to make sure they have (what) they need?”

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