By Ashley Rose Young / Special To The Washington Post
As omicron variant cases surged throughout December, wary people canceled their New Year’s Eve restaurant reservations. The risk of getting the coronavirus while dining indoors — even for the vaccinated and boosted — seemed too high for many. With the surge, Americans are grappling with the reality of another winter defined by alternative approaches to dining.
While bricks-and-mortar restaurants have two years of experience at adapting to the demands of covid, street food vendors by their very nature are also well-situated to offer a safe way to gather and share a meal. Food truck operators, open-air farmers market vendors and roadside stands that sell everything from hot dogs to arepas have come to play an essential role in communal and cultural life in the 21st century.
Although the roots of this approach to food are millennia old, street vending has long surfaced debates between city governments, entrenched business interests, vendors and their customers. Regulations that claimed to be about safeguarding public health have long restricted the ability of food vendors to make a living and kept consumers from eating affordably. Today, some cities have embraced food trucks as an economic and cultural boon; and the pandemic has made clear what a key role outdoor food operators can play.
For example, in 1900, New Orleans was home to a robust street vendor culture. Approximately 1,000 vendors operated businesses in the city streets, providing inexpensive food and playing a crucial role in the local food economy.
As early morning sunlight skimmed over the Mississippi River each day, vendors would sing out about their wares, which ranged from steaming bowls of gumbo served with long-grain Louisiana rice to farm-fresh, seasonal produce. Newspapers, cookbooks, travel logs and other richly detailed historical materials captured those street cries on the page. Some vendors bellowed while others wove together a beautiful melody of goods offered and at what price: “Come and gettum, Lady! I got green peppers, snapbeans, and tur-nips!” At the city center, hundreds of vendors clustered around the French Market, the city’s central public market, and its surrounding streets to the delight of some and the dismay of others.
Many of the itinerant vendors could not afford or were denied access to the coveted public market stalls because of discriminatory practices based on race, gender and immigration status. Similarly, it was nearly impossible for them to access the capital necessary to set up their own storefront. So, they improvised and strategically set up stalls and stands along the bustling thoroughfares surrounding the public markets in hopes of catching the attention and patronage of passersby.
In this climate, officials responded to outbreaks of diseases like cholera and salmonella by seeking to ban all street vending. While certainly these diseases may have circulated within street vending businesses, they were present in myriad public and private spaces, including other food retailers. Yet city officials fixated on street vendors and argued that they should move their businesses into one of the city’s dozens of public markets, rather than setting up on market-adjacent sidewalks and neighboring streets.
While they weren’t successful in forcing street vendors to move location, officials did restrict the operating hours of street vendors and make them vend their goods during nonpeak hours. Further, the city raised the price of a street-vending license nearly tenfold, making it difficult or impossible for many already impoverished peddlers to purchase one.
These new policies exposed the true motive of city officials. While they claimed to be worried about food-borne illnesses, they were more concerned with protecting the interests of public market vendors and bricks-and-mortar businesses who saw street food vendors as competitors.
In the end, these rules hurt both the peddlers and their clients who depended on them for affordable food. One street vendor wondered to the Times-Picayune: “I have a wife, five children and a horse to feed. If my sales are cut down by half [because of the time restrictions] and my profits, small as they are, are 50 percent less, how can I get along?” He pleaded with the mayor to help the poor vendors “make a fair living.”
And yet, despite the harm on consumers and vendors, many of whom had to close their businesses or scrape by one bowl of gumbo or piece of produce at a time, the new ordinance remained in place; and stayed through World War II.
During the war, the city’s local street food culture was decimated. Many of the street vendors went into the service, fighting abroad or working in plants building ships, tanks, planes and other equipment needed for the war effort. Local residents estimated that of the approximately 4,000 vegetable peddlers serving the city before the war, only a handful remained by the summer of 1944.
After the war, however, roadside produce stands and prepared food stalls popped up across the city, reinvigorating the street food culture through the 1950s and into the 1960s, even as supermarkets, new food technologies and an increasingly de-localized food system took hold in the United States.
Once again, city officials in New Orleans and across the country — claiming to be worried about public health as well as overcrowded city spaces — strategized about how to control street vendor movements and prevent them from setting up shop on their city’s sidewalks. From New Orleans to New York and Los Angeles, local officials doubled down on restrictive laws and conducted campaigns to shut down the daily “sidewalk squatters.”
Yet something changed in the 21st century: The rise of gourmet street food trucks and the proliferation of social media-driven “foodies” contributed to the public’s shifting impression of street vendors, in the process rebalancing the political equation to some degree. City officials and urban residents began to see street food as an economic and cultural plus; not a threat to established urban businesses.
This was clear in New Orleans, where in 2013, gourmet food truck operators joined with other street vendors to petition the New Orleans City Council to ease restrictions and allow them to operate in the city’s Central Business District. Local bricks-and-mortar restaurants resisted, but the food truck operators successfully argued that healthy competition among bricks-and-mortar and mobile restaurants was actually better for businesses and their customers. They saw themselves not as diametrically opposed businesses, but as part of the same restaurant ecosystem and therefore possessing shared interests. In short, street vendor-led activism — notably that by the Street Vendor Project — and creativity are beginning to pay off.
Despite policy changes that have lifted restrictions and expanded access to permits, mobile food sellers still face challenges imposed by the legacies of a century of restrictions; even as covid has made them even more essential parts of our culture. Local officials in places like New York City continue to deny vendors access to licenses, close streets to them at the behest of powerful business groups and issue large fines for small violations. Such conditions make it incredibly difficult for these vendors, many of them immigrants and people of color, to operate their businesses and provide for their families.
In the coming weeks, as people across the country don winter coats and seek outdoor dining options, street food vendors across the country will strive to meet customers’ demands all the while advocating for the rights of their businesses to exist and to thrive. Their efforts are reflective of a diverse group of food retailers struggling to survive the pandemic. As the cases of New Orleans and New York demonstrate, local governments can help these businesses to strive, or place additional stress and strain on their capacity to operate. But history reveals that most restrictions are about protecting powerful business interests rather than public health.
Ashley Rose Young is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She is currently working on two books: an academic manuscript about New Orleans’ street food culture and a biography of Creole chef Lena Richard.