Can Street Vendors Help Revitalize Our Communities?

Fruit Cart in East L.A.

By Rudy Espinoza |

Fruit Cart in East L.A.

In the midst of the “great recession” and all the preaching about how small business is the heart of the American economy, why not expand our investment beyond traditional brick and mortar businesses?

We should rethink small business to include really small business, like the up and coming crop of entrepreneurs working in the informal economy.

By engaging the informal economy, we can not only support their growth, but we may be able to recruit a whole new batch of business owners that are involved in their communities and willing to participate in revitalizing neglected neighborhoods.

Maybe I’m nuts, or maybe I’ve eaten too many Korean-fusion tacos, but I’ve had a growing fascinating with street vendors and the informal economy for some time. I think there’s something to be said about exploring the value these entrepreneurs bring to communities.

In neighborhoods with few grocery store options, and less restaurants, street vendors have become a staple, providing a relatively consistent supply of goods and services.  In fact, a friend of mine recently told me that street vendors are the retail pillars in her neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Wow!

Small Businesses, Big Benefits

Folks selling food or products out of carts and trucks offer convenient, affordable food.

When you exit a ball game, street vendors are always there. When you’re walking down the street, you may run into one. And in Los Angeles, I’ve noticed them right outside banks….maybe trying to capitalize on the happy people who just pulled some cash out of the ATM.

Where there is a crowd, you’ll nearly always find a street vendor or two.

Street vendors have a certain bravado. They are seemingly fearless of the consequences of doing business without the proper permits, and their mobility (especially food trucks) makes them the rogues of the business world.  They are always calibrating how and where they reach their customers, tailoring their products to meet the market’s needs.

Street vendors are in the trenches every day, interacting with customers, fully embodying the spirit of entrepreneurism that this country needs.

Street vendors are innovators too. Food trucks, the most famous relative of street vendors have become notorious for not only finding concentrations of customers, but creating demand for their products in a time where most people are scaling down their food outings.

Geez, food trucks even have a show on the Food Network.

What’s most striking about street vendors, at least some of the one’s I’ve interviewed here in Los Angeles with Los Angeles Urban Renewal Network is that some are doing it to survive.

There’s something powerful about a person taking the risk of entrepreneurship because they don’t have any other choice. You can find these informal entrepreneurs of all ages, and all experience levels, trying to make it happen on the streets of big cities, everywhere from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

How can we support them? How can we leverage their ingenuity to cultivate local economies?

Is there a way to leverage the decentralized infrastructure of street vendors to get healthy food in food deserts? What is the best way to invest in the most promising entrepreneurs?

Sure, we have to deal with the policy implications of streamlining the permitting process for food businesses, managing immigration issues for undocumented entrepreneurs, and acculturating the police to these important community stakeholders.

But I think it’s worth a shot.