Documentary Film Focuses on DC Vendors

Dog Days, a documentary film about street vending in Washington, D.C., recently received its much-anticipated D.C. theatrical premiere. The movie, which was produced in association with the Moving Picture Institute, tells the classic American tale of entrepreneurs struggling to get their businesses off the ground in the face of endless bureaucratic rules and regulations—which shouldn’t be a part of their story at all.

The documentary focuses on two lovable and compelling characters: Siyone, a single mother from East Africa who owns a hot-dog cart, and Coite Manuel, an engineer who lost his job and dreams of opening his own commissary—a place where street vendors restock and prepare their wares.

Siyone epitomizes the American dream. In some of the most intimate and compelling scenes of the documentary, we see her scrubbing dishes at the commissary with her three children at her side, long after most Washingtonians have retired for the evening. In these scenes, Dog Days beautifully captures Siyone’s determination and unfailing joy. She is happy to work hard to provide for her family.
Everyone in D.C. knows what food carts have to offer: hot dogs, chips, candy, and soda—and that’s it. Most people just accept that as fact and never wonder why. But Coite Manuel asked himself this question, and in looking for answers he discovered city laws structured to rip the buying power right out of vendors’ hands, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.

D.C. law requires food vendors to store their carts overnight at a District-approved commissary. The commissaries also offer food and beverages for sale, and how much they charge for rent will often turn on how many hot dogs and other items they buy. As one of the depot owners previously said, “There are no contracts to buy our food, but to keep us in business, there’s an unwritten rule.” Over the years, that rule created the mind-numbing monotony that Siyone and other D.C. cart-owners faced.

Coite wants to give vendors the opportunity to break that monotony, to branch out from just hot dogs, candy, and chips and into products like yogurt parfaits, jerk chicken sandwiches, and steak sliders. His venture meets resistance from a variety of sources, although none as stifling and frustrating as the D.C city bureaucracy.

For Coite’s business to survive, he needs the pool of vendors to grow. Unfortunately, D.C had put a moratorium on issuing new street vendor licenses.

The documentary brings to life the frustrating negotiations and city council meetings about street vendor laws. Meetings often denigrate into shouting matches, devoid of any sort of productive dialogue.

The moratorium remains in place, and the life is snuffed out of Coite’s business. In a particularly poignant moment, Coite discusses lifting the moratorium, “The restaurants don’t want it [lifted], the landlords don’t want it.”—”Who wants it?” asks the filmmaker—Coite emphatically responds, “The people want it!”

The story does not end happily ever after for Coite, who has to give up on his dream and take a government contractor job. Last year D.C finally lifted its moratorium on issuing new street vendor licenses, which means future entrepreneurs won’t have to deal with the same barriers to success that Coite faced. Future entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to live the American dream without this particular government roadblock getting in the way.

— Yitzy Muller
Yitzy Muller is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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