D.C. street vendors see advantage in offering ethnic food

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Customers of Shemondy Haile, a hot dog vendor on 18th and I streets, often try to order what he's having for lunch: light, spongy injera bread wrapped around sauteed green vegetables or spicy beef stew -- food from his native Eritrea, cooked by his wife.

Haile, who has sold hot dogs on this block for more than 20 years, experimented with changing his on-the-go fare last year. But eventually, he returned to the familiar hot dogs after he was told that he needed to meet additional regulations.

"I tried for one month, and it was selling good," he said wistfully of the food he sold for four times as much as a $1.50 dog, effectively doubling his income. "People come from far corners for that food."

For three years, the city has been urging District vendors to offer more complex fare. It has changed regulations making it easier for them to branch out. It has taken hot dog distributors to see the variety offered elsewhere. And it has run a series of informational meetings in six languages called "You Don't Have to Sell Hot Dogs."

The effort has been to little avail. All but a handful remain wedded to wieners and half-smokes. When asked why, the vendors -- many of whom are immigrants -- often cite a confusing raft of city health and bureaucratic regulations similar to those required of a restaurant. They also say they are intimidated by the owners of storage depots where they park their carts; the owners sell them hot dogs and packaged food and, many vendors say, pressure them to sell more dogs, not less.

"They see these other trucks out there, selling curries and jerk chicken, but they haven't taken that step to apply to the Health Department," said Sam Williams, vending coordinator for the District, who has been trying to promote greater diversity.

At a meeting Tuesday, Williams and Health Department officials met with a group of vendors who said they were interested in selling ethnic food but unsure how to go about making the switch. City officials handed out brochures explaining how to fill out applications, with details such as where the ingredients are purchased, expiration dates, displays and rules for storing carts.

"Now it's not going to be easy, and we're going to put you through a lot," said Lisa J. Davis, an official with the department's food safety division. But if they follow all the rules, she assured them, "We're not going to stop you from doing anything."

Longtime vendors acknowledge that broadening the food they offer would be to their advantage. A 2006 survey by the city found that 83 percent of customers wanted greater variety from street vendors.

That sentiment seems confirmed by long lines at the few carts -- 10 percent of about 300 in the city -- selling something more exotic than hot dogs. Some offer food prepared in commercial kitchens adhering to health regulations. Others have had extra inspections and completed the paperwork that permits them to prepare food in their carts.

"We went through a lot," said Chris Suh, who helped his parents, Korean immigrants Kyong and Min Suh, get started last year selling traditional fare such as the meat dish bulgogi and the rice and vegetable bibimbap, on 14th and K streets. "We went to the Health Department almost every day."

Their preparation paid off. The business is thriving, and the son plans to return to college.

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