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

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; B01

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.

The pressure to stick to dogs, though, can be fierce.

Most vending carts are towed each night to one of three approved facilities in the District. Although the Suhs said they have not been pressured to buy hot dogs from depot owners, other vendors say the owners have leaned heavily on them to keep selling their products.

"If I'm going to sell different dishes, different vegetables and the meats, if I do that, the depot owners, they get mad, they will throw me out," said Haile, whose says his storage fee of $200 to $300 a month varies depending on how much he buys from them. He fears his fees would rise if he stopped buying their products.

"They scream at you, 'Why you don't buy more?' " said Ezgaharia Mebrahtu, an Eritrean immigrant who sells hot dogs amid the corporate buildings at 19th and K streets. The market, she allows, is limited.

"Rich people, the big lawyers, they don't eat hot dogs. They don't even look at me," she said, gesturing toward the empty sidewalk at lunchtime.

The city took depot owners on a tour of Philadelphia to show them more diverse offerings. "Some of them dug in their heels," Williams said. "But we've had conversations with them, telling them the tide is turning, the customers are changing."

Aref Hanifi, an Afghan immigrant who owns one of the depots, said he does not pressure vendors to sell hot dogs and would like to sell them other fare.

"I can sell anything they want," he said, adding that nobody has asked for a change. "They don't care, all they know is hot dogs, mustard, ketchup, and that's it."

Hanifi said he wouldn't care if vendors provided their own food, but he would have to charge them for cart storage. Now, he says, unlike other depot owners, he charges no rent from vendors who are his customers.

Hanifi said he would like to sell chicken kebabs and rice from sidewalk carts.

"I'd like to bring a whole new food to the District of Columbia," he said, adding, "As long as it's okay by the Health Department."

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