Stewing at the Food Truck
Some Latino Vendors in Prince George's Chafe at County Crackdown

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

The economic rise of Dora Escobar can be charted by the signs posted on the bright blue stucco building she rents along University Boulevard in Prince George's County.

One reads "Bazaar Chiquita." Another, "La Chiquita Salon de Belleza." There's also "Travel Agency" and "Money Exchange."

Ten years ago, her livelihood was all contained in a battered, aluminum-sided food truck, like the one she has parked in the lot in front of her Langley Park businesses. Even after she moved into a storefront, she continued to serve savory beef sandwiches, taquitas, pupusas and pickled cabbage from the truck. For patrons who want to sit for a moment to sip frosty cans of sweet licuados, similar to smoothies, and enjoy their meals, she carved out a small outdoor cafe next to the building.

Each new enterprise diversified and buffered her livelihood from the growing competition in surrounding neighborhoods, where dozens of food trucks, known as vendadores by the many Latinos who operate and patronize them, have cropped up since Escobar began.

Most of the four-wheeled operations are illegal; Prince George's County does not license mobile food vendors except for special events like fairs or festivals. Police have rousted them periodically, and now a new crackdown is beginning in earnest.

Many of the Latino merchants are divided over who should be targeted -- everyone or just the newcomers.

Last week, county health regulators began fanning out to issue warnings that the operators are violating parking, health or zoning laws and must shut down. Five officers visited Escobar's business over the weekend and told her the truck violated county laws. They left with her a warning, printed on red paper, stating in part "This Final Notice is to advise you that you have been observed again engaging in illegal vending activities, and you must stop this activity immediately." A logo read: "Prince George's County: Part of a Growing Renaissance."

If she failed to comply, the officers said, they would return and arrest the workers serving food from the truck, and they might impound the vehicle. On Monday, a health department inspector returned to shut down her outdoor cafe.

Until now, Escobar believed that she was operating her businesses legally. Her truck has a certificate of inspection from the county health department, which she updates every year. It is parked on the lot of the building where she pays rent, so she assumes she is not violating parking regulations, she said.

Yet she and others have received dozens of $500 parking tickets recently from county police.

More than a decade ago, the Prince George's Council ordered a halt to street sales of barbeque, crabs, pupusas and other foods from vending trucks. But the operations never really disappeared, in part because of legal challenges and confusion over the law. These days, business is again booming as a new wave of trucks has taken to county roads.

Escobar, who came to the United States from El Salvador 17 years ago and began her first truck business as an earlier mobile vending ban was being challenged in court, does not begrudge the new operators who are trying to build their financial futures, plateful by plateful.

She acknowledges, however, that streets lined bumper-to-bumper with the often-battered panel trucks are "not the most attractive thing." Workers line up at their windows at dawn for a hot quick breakfast, return mid-day to lunch, and lounge around on the streets after buying dinner from them.

Others in the business community, however, are less diplomatic.

"Move them away, put them away, I don't know," said Cesar Lambastida, who emigrated from Mexico 16 years ago and now owns a Three Brothers pizza franchise with four of his siblings. "We are in the United States. It looks bad to sell things on the street."

Others say the county needs to take a more nuanced approach.

Juan Rivas, the president of the Asociacion de Vendadores, a group of about 32 Langley Park-area vendors, said the county should distinguish between established businesses and fly-by-night newcomers. He called the current crackdown "overkill."

Rivas argues that his association members operate under a code: They report their earnings and pay taxes, carry health licenses and undergo inspections.

Many of los neuvos -- the newcomers -- do none of that, he said. They don't comply with health regulations, don't pay taxes, come and go as they please. And because they incur none of the costs that health department-certified, tax-paying operations do, he said, they can offer food at lower prices.

An $8 plate of chorizo, carne and chicken -- the going rate before the newcomers started undercutting them -- gave vendors a 30 percent profit. Now, the competition has forced them to drop their prices to $5 or $6 a plate. Rising costs for fuel and meat have shrunk profits to 10 percent or less, Rivas said. Eleven of the longtime pupusa vendadores have left the business and have been replaced by newcomers in the past year, he said.

"They are operating completely without regulation and feeding the perception that the pupusa trucks are creating all kinds of social disorder," Rivas said. "Then there are those who cook inside their apartments and bring the food outside and sell it from tables. . . . It is not an equal situation."

When the marketplace is flooded with competition, studies have shown, the climb up the economic ladder slows. It is perhaps steeper than it was when Escobar and her husband began their first pupusa business.

But county officials say they are making no distinctions between vendadores who say they are trying to comply with existing laws and those who seem to flout them all.

Escobar bit her tongue recently when one of the county workers making the rounds on an "education campaign" insisted her truck was parked illegally.

She thought she was complying with existing regulations. The loss of income from the two vending trucks she owns will hurt, making it harder to launch other enterprises. Within the next several weeks, for instance, she and her husband expect to open two more storefront money exchanges in Riverdale Park and Takoma Park.

Down University Boulevard, which is lined by a cacophony of shopping strips, Lambastida is unmoved. He came to the United States legally when he was 13 and worked hard to buy a franchise with his family.

"I'm Spanish and I'm sympathetic, because you know these guys are just trying to make it," he said of the vendadores. "In this country, you have a lot of opportunities to move up in the world. But you got to do it the right way. They're not doing it the right way."

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