Bootleg Banquet

09/21/2011

Bootleg Banquet 

- by Davi Rodrigues published on 09/21/11 in the Sacramento Press.

Link to entire story photos & video

Sacramento is host to several thousand food facilities, the majority of which are sit-down restaurants, fast food franchise outlets, and independently operated sandwich, coffee, baked goods, and dessert shops. Also making up a notable percentage of Sacramento's food facilities are mobile vendors and caterers, institutional providers such as schools, churches, and care homes, and of course grocery and other food markets. Whatever your feelings you may have in regards to the sophistication or quality of fare available in Sacramento, one cannot argue that we lack opportunities to eat. Even a flat broke, destitute transient has choices in this area, what with Loaves and Fishes, Union Gospel Mission, and a number of food bank outlets offering meals or goods, so even someone with empty pockets has options here.

One growing addition to Sacramento's food fare scene, although seldom mentioned by media, is illegal mobile vendors. These bootleg food vendors crop up all over the city and county, although some sections of Sacramento seem to host more than their share of them. Illegal vendors have to be separated from the rest of the food facility operators by nature of compliance. These vendors have earned the illegal designation because they have forsaken the lawful pathway to sole proprietorship and above board business practices. Accompanying that, these unlawful operators have evaded inspection of their equipment and products, as well as having skipped any scrutiny of their food handling practices. In addition, they are often a component part of Sacramento's underground economy, and detract from the opportunities for those who operate above board in their business practices.

The Operators

Illegal vendors have little range in fare really, most of them offering tamales, home bagged chicharrones, sliced fruits and prepared fruit drinks, heated spiced corn, and ice cream. There are a few stragglers that stray from the majority, and they are usually semi-clandestine barbeque stands which offer on the spot barbequed ribs and chicken, and sometimes you'll see an un-permitted hot dog stand here and there. By the numbers, it's hard to argue against a claim that most illegal vendors in the Sacramento area tend to hail from Mexico and countries south of that. Street vending without bureaucratic interference is probably a given in those countries, so some of these vendors might be surprised at any enforcement effort when it comes their way, however I've noticed that many have just plain chosen to evade the regulation. Illegal vendors are not just street merchants either. Some have migrated to the internet to market their products, and a quick look on Craigslist will usually turn up a half dozen or so wanna-be caterers, or home-manufacturers of baked goods, tamales again, and to a smaller degree, other ethnic prepared foods. Un-permitted caterers deserve a noticeable mention here too, and they don't necessarily fit in the previously mentioned ethnic group, as many people believe that a start-up under-the-table catering business is a traditional rite of passage to being a restauranteur.

Red Tape For Public Safety

True that all food vendors are required by state and county code to undergo safety inspections. Not just at the outset, but every year or more to keep the public safe from food borne bacteria. Before one opens a food facility of any type, they are required to submit an application to the County Environmental Management Department (EMD), complete with equipment you will be using, location at which it will be prepared, and plans for your location if you are building one. Mobile vendors also must comply with many of the same requirements, subjecting their mobile equipment to inspection and their handling practices to scrutiny. In addition, they must provide the location of an approved facility where their goods are manufactured or stored. Yes; of course it's all cumbersome, time consuming, and wallet draining, but we didn't get to this point for no reason whatsoever. The state health code was crafted and amended in response to the close quarters we all live in, and the growing chances that one small bacterial outbreak was going to affect exponentially more people as the population grows. Bacteria is the gift that keeps on giving. While one person suffers and conquers its' effects, they also spread it unknowingly, often before they even feel its' symptoms. Basically one food vendor can sicken 50 to hundreds of people in one day, and those people may spread the contamination after that contact, so it's a worthy invasion of private enterprise by government regulation. Most of us have felt the unpleasantness of food borne illness in our lives, however we tend to forget how we felt back then, as new hunger dulls the memory. The more hungry we get, the more we tend to throw caution to the wind. That's just human nature, and here we have the health department thinking ahead of ourselves for us. The local EMD sets basic safety standards for temperature, sanitization, handling procedures, and products. Temperature is a big concern, both hot and cold, because that either retards spoilage, or kills the bacteria. Food products stored at temperatures too low or too high are a big contributor to spoilage and bacteria growth. Sanitation being high on EMD's list also, the areas that foods are stored in and prepared upon, as well as the cleanliness of those preparing it are examined and prescribed.

The Case For Enforcement

There are thousands of permitted food facilities in Sacramento county, but only a few hundred illegal vendors, so why should we concern ourselves with a few hard-working immigrants or poor schmoe's trying to start a small business? One reason is that without enforcement efforts, a few hundred illegal vendors would mushroom into a thousand. Los Angeles, California has proven a good example of how a little tolerance gives way to runaway flagrant disregard. One section of downtown Los Angeles had become a hotbed of illegal vending, and law enforcement's effort to bring some control ended up with one person being shot dead, not over illegal vending per se, but when an area of town succumbs to corruption, it becomes exponentially more hazardous to clean it out. Just because one part of town has a cultural tendency does not lessen their need for the same safety protections the EMD provides everywhere else, and you certainly cannot go to war with bacteria while voluntarily leaving several safe havens open for it to flourish. Illegal vendors are a bacterial Petri dish in most cases. They have no refrigeration or heat, a previously mentioned main weapon against bacterial growth, and their equipment is usually some of the most conducive for it to take hold and stay. Illegal vending carts are usually rough wood surfaces painted with potentially hazardous coatings, and their storage containers normally non-commercial ice chests and home use or home made containers to hold warmth. Basically, they are a walking or movable transportation device for food borne illness. In addition, almost all of them have zero facility or capability for one of the most common methods of prevention where bacterial spread is concerned; hand washing. Illegal vendors handle cash, dirty equipment, discarded items, and their own basic human functions, then handle the customers food without the safety of clean hands. I've taken photos and videos of some of them working on their cars, tending to their kids needs, and even doing the human equivalent to hacking up a fur ball, and then going immediately back to handling customer's food.

Aside from the food safety element in the illegal vending realm, there is the underground economy to consider. All permitted vendors are registered with many state, federal and local agencies, and thus exposed to the many regulatory fees and taxes imposed and levied upon them, some of which go towards implementing all of the various safety programs previously described. A person with an above board presence has little opportunity to escape detection of, or scrutiny by any taxing agency, but one who operates clandestinely can pay nothing to no one, and also deny having made a cent in the past if and when any detection occurs. People operating an underground economy business are also free to partake of any of the free social services provided by government, without worry that a 1099, wage report, or filed tax return might get them exposed to a benefits fraud charge. The only person that knows how much they make is them, and they cheat; remember?

A final point in our enforcement case is actually a big one, but usually only to those who play by the rules: A level playing field in business. As mentioned earlier, people opening a food facility spend thousands of saved or borrowed dollars to comply with a myriad of regulatory codes for public safety. Building a lawfully compliant business often results in months long delays and unplanned additional expenses that surface during the inspection or application process. It isn't even the slightest bit fair to open your establishment after subjecting yourself to an expensive, and often seemingly overburdening bureaucracy, only to see an illegal cart vendor that resembles something that Jedd Clampett would build, set up a few feet or even a block away, siphoning off any portion of the customer base included in your business plan. Watching some underground economy dweller leech dollar after dollar within visual range of someone who rightfully earned their place in the business community might be more than just a little insulting. Likewise, someone who is paying rent to a permitted facility so they can produce products in a lawful and safe manner for a catering business should be given a bit of enforcement effort to cripple those who use their homes to haphazardly manufacture dinners or desserts for weddings or parties.

Applying The Law

Sacramento County has developed a response team of sorts to combat illegal food vendors. Sac County EMD has a link to on their web page to report food facility issues, including those operating without permits. Sacramento County Code Enforcement also has a link on their web page to report any perceived code violations, and they will route them to the appropriate department. Sac County's EMD has conducted sweeps of areas where illegal vendors have been reported, sometimes seizing unsafe food products and equipment. An unpermitted food vendor can also be issued a citation that can result in a stiff fine. Conducting such sweeps often require the aid of local code enforcement or even law enforcement officers, as most EMD inspectors are not trained to deal with hostile operators or nearby supporters. With code enforcement and law enforcement officers constrained by budget factors, the EMD sweep effort gets hampered, but not halted. Over the past couple of years, EMD sweeps have resulted in the seizure of around 100 unsafe food carts. EMD also provides downloadable fliers to the public which a motivated soul can print and pass along to vendors who might not be in the know regarding the law. One can even post this in a location where illegal vendors frequent.

Malfeasance

While the EMD has shown incentive and willingness to address illegal food vendors, other government agencies have evaded or shirked any involvement in enforcement, even though they have both reason and authority. County Code enforcement is quick to direct you to EMD. I once reported one vendor within walking distance of the County code enforcement office, but was quickly rebuffed and redirected. Sac city had a bit more pro-active program a couple of years ago, as I spoke with what was then the lone officer citing illegal vendors on Franklin Blvd one day. Sac City PD, as well as Sac County Sheriff doesn't generally cite code issues, and are usually dismissive if you complain of it even in their immediate vicinity. That attitude amplifies ten fold when unpermitted vendors show up at a community sponsored public event. Not only will they not cite or demand illegal vendors stop, but they often patronize them in full view of lawfully operating ones. For several years in a row, the celebration of Mexican Independence Day at our state capitol has attracted dozens of illegal vendors, many of which were in direct competition with the much ballyhooed gourmet food trucks this year. Nonetheless, they were allowed to share in the customer base without regard to permitting status or sanitary requirements. It would be a terrible injustice to omit the state government from the grievance list where malfeasance is concerned, and although our CHP performs without bias where our traffic enforcement is the task, I've seen them balk like a lead footed child who was asked to clean their room when a demand was made to remove illegal vendors from the capitol grounds. They do it upon your report, unlike the City PD, but I don't know if you'd want to be on the business end of their pinch book if you had the misfortune to later run afoul of the vehicle code and have a memorable face as well. Schools officials can often be added to the list as well, as I've taken issue with illegal vendors targeting kids at lunch or after school lets out with their unsanitarily prepared products. One pack of illegal vendors were positioning themselves between the busses and the school just before the bell rang, and my discussion with the principal had zero effect. In fact, in an insulting turnabout, the school called their own police department on me for documenting the incident. And lastly we cannot leave out the state legislature, who also tolerate, if not outright condone this section of the underground economy right before their shifty eyes. I once pointed out several illegal vendors to Senator Darryl Steinberg right at the entrance to the west side of capitol as he strolled by. I was barely acknowledged before he took up a pandering position on the capitol steps and welcomed the crowd to his humble domain. It's hard to take people like that seriously when they babble on about tax cheats and people or companies that don't pay their fair share, after you witness their unwillingness to put their own house in order. Likewise, I'm certain the city council and mayor of Sac know quite well that many of their public events are lousy with illegal vendors and that it gives appearance that the city is encouraging the underground economy. This is an unfortunate, and all too common characteristic that has surfaced in American government lately. The closer you get to the center of government, the more society tends to deteriorate. Corruption is magnetic in the sense that as soon as a nucleus is established, smaller and similarly bent entities begin to revolve around it. It's a form of political gravity that citizens wanting good government would do best to defy.

The Conclusion

Illegal vending is an unworthy participant in the Sacramento area's business community. With the county's permitted restaurants and mobile vendors already suffering from the recession and loss of customer base, there is no good reason they should be forced to compete against shady, surface-money skimming operators who aren't the slightest bit concerned about their customer's safety. Sacramento doesn't profit from the underground economy that illegal vending contributes to either, and for any government entity to condone or dismiss it, detracts from the fairness and propriety that good civic management should be known for. Tolerance and apathy does very little good for the illegal vendors as well, since that offers no incentive for them to them to improve their standing and join the above board business community.

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