By Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich
Sidewalk vending has been in the spotlight recently and, with livelihoods at the forefront, it’s understandable why. For more than 30 years, Santa Monica has supported vending and has had vending programs in place to create viable pathways for small business owners to thrive through food trucks, licensed carts on the Pier and Third Street Promenade, and stalls at our famous farmers markets.
In 2019, the State of California decriminalized sidewalk vending through SB 946 and we quickly went to work building a program that incentivized sidewalk vending through a low-cost program that eliminated some of the common barriers to permitting, including an insurance waiver. We engaged with vending advocates and sidewalk vendors, soliciting their feedback to help shape the program and develop bilingual outreach aimed at supporting sidewalk vendors through our permitting process.
It has been nearly three years since we launched that program and we have more than 100 permitted sidewalk vendors operating in our city–a number on par with the much larger City of Los Angeles. Since the program’s inception, our code enforcement officers have shared thousands of bilingual fliers, always leading with education and outreach, contributing to an accessible and inclusive program that has been acknowledged as such by both advocates and permitted sidewalk vendors.
Santa Monica continues to expand economic opportunity for all. We are a community that has prioritized equitable economic recovery from the pandemic. We invest in programs that ensure that historically marginalized communities have real pathways to entrepreneurship. In addition to our licensed cart vending, sidewalk vending, and food truck programs, we are building out a community kitchen at Virginia Avenue Park in 2022, a shared commercial kitchen space designed to help residents break into the costly food industry.
Yet, we cannot overlook the real risks playing out in our community every day, particularly when it comes to the safety of the public. This is the fundamental challenge we face at the Santa Monica Pier. Our historic Pier is a wooden structure that is flammable. On any given day, unpermitted vendors flock to the bustling location, creating an unsafe environment for themselves and the public by cooking with open flames and unpermitted combustible fuels. The Pier also has limited emergency access and capacity limits, particularly on warm days when the beach is full. For these reasons, it is not legal to vend on or within 100 feet of the Pier. Despite this, many vendors have been unwilling to work with us on moving to ample and safe alternative locations.
Though our staff continues to lead with educating vendors about our permit program and seeking voluntary compliance with our local health and safety laws, when necessary, enforcement remains an important tool given the real dangers to public safety and health. Our enforcement efforts are an effective collaboration between our Fire Department, Code Enforcement, Police Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the lead agency on proper food handling and permitting. Advisals far exceed enforcement actions.
Beyond safety, there are other challenges that add complexity and create confusion for sidewalk vendors and the public. The State Retail Food Code has cumbersome requirements that present barriers to entry, particularly for food vendors. We strongly support modernizing these rules and identifying opportunities to streamline access to safe, permitted food vending, and look forward to partnering with vendor advocates in this effort over the coming months.
We welcome the interest in Santa Monica’s approach to sidewalk vending and are eager to channel the energy and activism toward our shared goal of getting more vendors into our program in support of their success as small business owners. By working with vendors to become permitted, encouraging safe locations off the Pier, and advocating for changes to State law that will make permitting easier, we are confident we are moving in the right direction toward a shared goal of accessible and inclusive entrepreneurship in our public spaces.