Clinton Haughton parks one of his two Johnny’s Jamaican Grill food trucks at the Vybes Nation food truck park on Religious Street.
Business at the park used to be good, he says, but it’s dropped off since the pandemic. So for the past five or so months, his brother Adam has been taking the other truck to the St. Claude corridor.
“We have to go outside our boundary and try to make ends meet and do something else,” Haughton says. “That’s why we’re on St. Claude right now.”
The area has a popular nightlife scene thanks to regular shows and events at venues like Hi-Ho Lounge, The AllWays Lounge, Siberia and Cafe Istanbul in the stretch between Elysian Fields and St. Roch Avenue, and at Saturn Bar and The Domino down the road. There’s also Sea Cave and Emporium arcades and karaoke at Kajun’s.
Haughton says he or his brother typically set up on a side street around the 2200 block of St. Claude Thursday through Sunday, selling jerk chicken and oxtail. They operate from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., as the restaurants in the area are already closed by then.
Johnny’s Jamaican Grill is one of the larger street food vendors in the area, many of which operate on the neutral ground. In addition to food trucks, people sell out of trailers and off folding tables, offering everything from tacos to burgers and wings.
“If I don’t go out, everybody’s calling me, ‘Johnny, where are you? Where are you?’” Haughton says.
The lively street vending scene quieted down temporarily after the city did an enforcement sweep in the St. Claude area back in July, including checking if vendors had the permits required to sell food to the public and if they were following fire protocols. Haughton says he has the permits needed to sell food in the city. But many of the other vendors do not.
Haughton says there are some vendors who haven’t returned because their profit margins aren’t big enough to afford a fine. He says on a good night he’ll sell between $400 and $600 worth of food, but sometimes it’s $200-$300. Other times, no one is out there.
“You never know when you’re going to have a bad night and nothing happens,” Haughton says. “But sometimes you have a good night too.”
The enforcement sweeps on street vending on St. Claude and elsewhere in the city have been met with a variety of intense reactions.
On one side, there are people who say unlicensed street vendors are just trying to make a living and that the city should focus its enforcement efforts elsewhere. On the other are people who believe unlicensed vendors are cheating the city out of tax dollars and that they have an unfair advantage over businesses who do pay for permits and taxes. Critics also cite health and safety concerns.
It has spurred a long overdue debate about how the city should treat street vending, and even has some city officials meeting with stakeholders to discuss potential solutions.
“I think it’s finding what’s working within the existing structure, taking advantage of that, and then finding things that aren’t working and advocating for change,” says Howie Kaplan, director of the Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Nighttime Economy, which participated in the St. Claude sweep.
Street vending has been a part of New Orleans culture for centuries, and over the years, it has taken a variety of forms in different parts of the city.
People smoking food on trailers or set up with folding tables on the St. Claude neutral ground are different from the tarot card readers and shot girls in the French Quarter, which in turn differ from the people selling sunhats and water outside of The Fair Grounds during Jazz Fest or the people selling cold drinks during second lines.
“It’s constantly evolving in every area of the city,” Kaplan says.
The scene on St. Claude became so popular that people were spilling out into the streets. In addition to unpermitted alcohol and food sales, the city cited parking, trash dumping and “obstruction of the public right of way” as reasons for the sweep, as well as shootings and fatal cyclist accidents in the last year.
“There were all kinds of issues going on there,” Kaplan says. “But vending was almost the least of it.”
Sinnidra Taylor, who owns the rental commercial kitchen Codey’s NOLA, says cars were already parking on the neutral ground long before food vendors came. She says the vendors “came in a way that there was no order” because the area needed food and there was no other space for them to go.
“Nobody’s giving people credit that, ‘Oh, when the food trucks came, my customers didn’t have to leave to get food somewhere else because the food trucks are here,’” she says. “What they should say is, ‘We didn’t create a space for them to operate in a way that was safe for the whole community.’ That’s what didn’t happen. So now bikers are getting hit because there are larger trucks parked on the neutral ground.”
Generally speaking, the city’s rules surrounding street vending and the required permits are difficult to navigate. But that’s not really the case on St. Claude, Kaplan says, since as it stands no vending is allowed on the neutral ground or on sidewalks.
Food trucks must find a place to park that follows parking laws and doesn’t “impede an exit or entrance of an operating building,” according to the city’s website. And they aren’t allowed to stay in one location longer than four hours.
For other mobile food vendors to get their permits, they need to cook their food in a host kitchen to meet health department requirements.
The city last year created an annual permit to allow food pop-ups to operate on a regular basis out of a host kitchen, typically at a bar or restaurant. Both the host and the pop-up vendor pay $550 and $200 a year respectively for this permit.
But the reality is vendors often like to sell their food outside, where they can attract passersby. At The Domino at 3044 St. Claude Ave., owner T. Cole Newton says that’s true for several of the pop-up vendors with which the bar works.
“We think pop-ups, but we’re really street vendors,” says Amanda Alard, who owns Latin food pop-up Que Pasta, which recently started operating out of Siberia most nights of the week. “There’s some places that have full kitchens, but you want to be on the street because you want people to see that you’re there.”
Food vendors can also meet health requirements by renting out space in a commissary kitchen, though many of these vendors, who are operating microbusinesses with small profit margins, say that’s not a cost they can afford, especially just starting out.
At the same time, as Kaplan noted on Newell Normand’s radio show back in July, when it comes to cooking and selling food, “there are very particular state (health) guidelines that I don’t think ever will change.”
Although New Orleans has a unique street vending scene, the city’s struggle to create a permitting structure that is affordable and accessible for vendors is not unique.
Even in cities with massive street vending scenes, like Los Angeles and New York City, the vast majority of those street vendors do not have permits. Vendors operating without permits and licenses and/or not paying taxes on their sales are considered to be part of what is known as the “informal economy.”
In New York City, there are an estimated 20,000 street vendors. However, for decades the city limited permits to an astonishingly low 853. In 2021, the city council passed legislation to add about 4,500 new vendor licenses over the next decade, but as of March, the city had not started giving out those new licenses, leaving 10,000 people still on the waiting list, according to New York-based publication AMNY.
Meanwhile, following more than a decade of advocacy, California last year passed a host of changes to its street vending rules which decriminalized street vending and attempted to make it easier for food cart vendors to meet health departments requirements.
That included removing a triple-basin sink requirement for vendors who don’t cook raw meat on their cart and lifting a statewide ban on reheating foods cooked at a commissary kitchen, among other changes.
But Estefania Lopez Perez, senior policy associate at nonprofit Inclusive Action for the City which co-founded the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, says even with those changes, most L.A. vendors still can’t afford carts that meet health department standards.
Lopez Perez says by the time a vendor purchases a code compliant cart, rents out a commissary space and pays for permits, it could run them between $9,000 and $11,500. Compared to the $15,000 to $20,000 a year she estimates many vendors are typically making a year, that’s just not feasible.
“Some vendors might think about the situation and say, it’s so much easier for me to stay in the informal economy, where I’ve been operating basically since I’ve been in business, than trying to move to the formal economy where I don’t really see the benefits of paying thousands upon thousands of dollars that I don’t have,” she says.
In Los Angeles, there also are not enough commissary kitchen spaces for the city’s estimated 12,500 street food vendors.
“We don’t have people flocking to get health permits, and it’s not because folks don’t want to get fully formalized,” Lopez Perez says. “It’s because they’re finding all of these barriers to do so.”
When asked about the struggles in Los Angeles, Kaplan reiterated that he believed L.A., San Francisco and New York were “good examples” of cities that were handling street vending well.
Some researchers are doubtful any set of city restrictions can make food street vending rules flexible, clear and affordable enough that they make sense for vendors.
Alvaro Huerta, an urban planning and ethnic studies scholar who has written about street vending in Los Angeles, says what it boils down to is that people in the formal economy, including elected officials and people in nonprofits, usually don’t get the informal economy or the reasons it exists.
“They just don’t understand the nature of the informal economy,” Huerta says. “The solution is not to transform the informal economy to formal.”
According to Huerta, people enter the informal economy because they’re blocked by “the inherent obstacles in the formal economy,” whether it’s bad credit, poverty, their status as an immigrant or formerly incarcerated person, or something else.
In his eyes, city enforcement punishes vendors for doing what they know how to do — “to survive by doing something that they’re good at, in this case, let’s say cooking.”
Huerta says he opposed the efforts to rewrite street vending rules in Los Angeles because he thought it would further create a tiered system between vendors with permits and those without them, making the most vulnerable and under-resourced more vulnerable.
“While the actions and initiatives have good intentions, the unintended consequences are grave for those who won’t enter the system,” he says.
Renia Ehrenfeucht, a street vending researcher who taught at the University of New Orleans for nearly a decade, said regulations, frequently driven by complaints, often become too restrictive and don’t leave enough leeway for the realities of vending.
“They don’t recognize that people are going to respond and adapt to situations as they play out,” they say.
For instance, Ehrenfeucht says, street vendors may set up in a place that meets their city’s guidelines of being far enough away from intersections and storefront entrances but then face complaints from neighbors and storefront owners. The place they find where people are more welcoming may not be in compliance with city law.
She recommends eliminating barriers, easing restrictions, “recognizing how varied street vending is and trying to just kind of allow things to unfold the way they will unfold as much as possible.”
Ehrenfeucht says many cities wish they had a street culture like New Orleans’ and that city officials should be actively prioritizing street vending and finding more places for people to vend rather than citing or fining them.
“What would be if we didn’t start from the perspective of something’s going wrong with vending and instead saying this is something we really want to promote and have and we’re lucky to have it?” they say.
Another part of the problem is city government has not figured out how to treat microbusinesses in a way that doesn’t punish them before they get off the ground.
Taylor, owner of Codey’s, says most of these business owners have little choice but to start selling food before they can afford their permits.
“At some point, you’re gonna be operating out of the system to get within the system, unless you have a significant amount of revenue to invest in your business out the gate, which most people don’t,” she says.
When they’re just starting out, vendors have little money to spend on expenses. If they’re not a food truck or partnering with a bar or restaurant, they’ll need to rent space in a commercial kitchen to get a health permit. Doing so costs a considerable amount of money.
At New Orleans Trap Kitchen, owner Eric Rothschild says renting out kitchen space for 40 hours starts at $800 a month. Those needing less time in the kitchen can pay an hourly rate of $30. Fridge space and overnight fridge storage is an additional cost.
Typically, he says, vendors need to have at least three to four events a week to budget for rental time. And the unpredictability of the food business can make vendors less certain they’ll get their money back.
“Somebody comes in, books time and then one of their events gets rained out or isn’t as big as they thought, they might have not made any money,” he says.
Kaplan says he and other city officials are looking into creating an emerging business permit for new business owners looking to test their products on the market, something Alard of Que Pasta and other vendors say they support.
“If there’s a little stepping stone for the babies, I think that would help them,” Alard says. “Just like there’s elementary, middle school and high school, but for pop-ups.”
In the meantime, in the absence of city help, some owners of these local rental kitchens are attempting to accommodate these businesses and provide resources to help them grow.
At Codey’s, Taylor has some smaller food entrepreneurs rent space at $13-$15 an hour. And those who rent space at Codey’s can collaborate on catering orders to help diversify their revenue streams, she says.
Codey’s also offers classes to assist vendors with everything from navigating the permitting and licensing process to taking headshots. And associated nonprofit Friends of Codey’s partners with Fund 17 to reimburse people for the cost of registering their business with the Secretary of State if they take a class.
At Trap Kitchen, Rothschild also has been looking into how to accommodate some of these smaller food businesses so they can rent space in his kitchen. He says he wants to offer a discounted pop-up package in the future that could also include rental equipment.
Operating out of a commissary gives vendors the experience of cooking in a commercial kitchen. Rothschild also connects vendors at his kitchen with opportunities, and newer vendors can learn from more experienced vendors there.
Plus, as Rothschild has learned, there are benefits to operating within the system. Once he got the permits for Trap Kitchen, he says business tripled within a month or two.
“As you legitimize, your business reflects that and will grow,” he says. “The business is more legitimate. But also from the owner perspective, you take pride in that legitimacy, and that is a stepping stone for growth as well.”
Part of that, The Domino owner Newton says, is having permits allows a vendor to market their business without fear of the city hearing about them and shutting them down.
“There’s sort of a ceiling that you can hit if you’re not fully legitimate,” he says.
Rothschild says if New Orleans invests in street vendors and pop-ups early on, the city will see a return on its investment.
He points to businesses that started as pop-ups and now have physical storefronts, like Lucy Boone Ice Cream, Zee’s Pizzeria, Mister Mao and Wonderland + Sea. “They’re paying higher property taxes,” Rothschild says. “Their sales have doubled, tripled, quintupled, 10 times more sales opportunities.”
If the city “could prop up all these other businesses and help them grow, then that tax revenue for the city is getting even greater,” he adds. “Then maybe we can fix some potholes and make sure pumps stay online.”
Along St. Claude, Kaplan and other city officials have been reaching out to owners of unused lots around the 2200 block and encouraging them to create private designated food vending lots.
The idea is to get people off the neutral ground and prevent them from spilling into the streets, while still having a place nearby vendors can sell.
But it’s unclear what that would look like in practice, including key details like how many spaces the lots would have for vendors, how much it would cost them to set up there or what on-site resources would be available.
“I think some people envision, hey, here’s just a place you come in, you set up the table, you turn around and leave,” Kaplan says. “I don’t envision anything like that. I think it would be something a lot more built out.”
Instead, Kaplan says he envisions a lot with a commissary kitchen on site “where [vendors] are not having to lug a smoker or to lug something on a trailer or to put things together, to be able to have something that’s more suitable for keeping food safe.”
Ultimately, a private owner or manager would be making most of those decisions. And while a commissary kitchen would help vendors comply with health and safety rules, it would most likely increase the cost of vending there.
Additionally, many stakeholders agree they would also like to see more free or low-cost educational classes on topics like navigating the permitting process, food safety and best practices that will minimize complaints from neighbors and surrounding businesses, like not setting up in front of storefronts selling similar products.
“Let’s say there’s a restaurant that sells tacos, and if you sell tacos, don’t park your cart right next to that restaurant. That’s part of these agreements and understandings because you’re not doing yourself any favors. That restaurant that sells tacos, they donate and they vote for elected officials, so they’re the ones reporting you,” says Huerta, the researcher. “Sometimes [vendors’] own actions bring more attention to them, and there’s legitimate cases that people have.”
In absence of city policy that makes sense for them, some street vendors in other cities have taken matters into their own hands.
In Los Angeles, Lopez Perez says vendors in some areas have created sidewalk vending hubs with their own policies for vendors to abide by.
“There’s a place in East L.A. where there’s a ‘governing board’ that has been elected, so they make their own rules,” she says. “One of the things that they’re conscious of is OK, we don’t own the sidewalk, but we can organize ourselves to determine how to best use the sidewalk to make space for everybody.”
When a new vendor wants to sell in the area, vendor leaders invite them to join their committee and provide them with a space. They also look out for each other and save spots for vendors who may have a harder time securing space in the mornings, such as those who are elderly or have disabilities. Some communicate with each other with walkie talkies.
“Those are the beautiful things that you see when public policy is maybe not necessarily failing but just not moving as fast as you’d like it to move,” Lopez Perez says. “There are beautiful moments in community organizing, where folks are still just chugging along and moving and making the best out of the situation and continuing to earn a living.”
In some cases, city enforcement officials will work with vendor leaders as issues arise, and vendor leaders will tell vendors if they need to move.
“There’s real opportunity in collaborating so that there isn’t this punitive approach,” Lopez Perez says. “There’s an education-first approach.”
Rothschild, who is also part of New Orleans Food Policy Action Council, says he’s not familiar with any similar street vendor organizing efforts in New Orleans, likely because organizing takes time, and food vendors are already stretched thin working long hours.
Still, he says he would love to eventually turn Trap Kitchen into a cooperative where each client has a stake in its ownership and is building credit.
Huerta argues street vending policy needs to come from people on the ground, like vendors and community leaders, and the government’s role should be to support these groups with food or space for their meetings.
“The solution to the informal economy cannot come from government because government is part of the problem,” Huerta says.