A new charcuterie-themed street vendor is attempting to elevate picnicking in one of Palm Springs’ local parks by offering visitors a selection of fruits, cheeses, meats, and sandwiches. This new small business is a great example of how street vending can enhance a community, but it’s the only vendor to get fully licensed under Palm Springs’ new sidewalk vending ordinance. As the Palm Springs Post reported, another two dozen vendors haven’t gotten licensed, and critics say that’s largely due to how many barriers the new requirements place on merchants.  

In California, a 2018 state law protects street merchants from being criminally charged for violations and prevents cities from banning these businesses outright. However, municipalities can require vendors to get certain permits or restrict where they can operate to specific places or times. 

Under Palm Springs’ new rules, which were passed in mid-September, street vendors are required to obtain: 

  • a business license from the city,  
  • liability insurance,  
  • a health department permit if they’re selling or preparing food,  
  • and all employees must have a food handler’s card.  

Additionally, the ordinance effectively bans street food merchants from the busiest areas of downtown. Vendors can’t operate within 10 feet of a business entrance or a farmers’ market, nor can merchants set up tables, chairs, or large signs. Fines can range from $50 for the first violation, and up to $250 for each additional violation within a year of the first citation, according to the city’s agenda from the Sept. 14 meeting

Critics of the ordinance say it’s discriminatory and harms immigrant business owners. Multiple immigrant-rights organizations tried to lobby the city council before the ordinance’s passage to no avail. Among their concerns is the requirement that vendors obtain liability insurance, which they say places an undue burden on merchants. In other cities, such as Long Beach, California, merchants aren’t required to get liability insurance to operate, critics point out. 

“Other cities don’t need these restrictions, so Palm Springs shouldn’t either,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) Senior Attorney Justin Pearson. “Street vendors make cities better, more prosperous, and safer. Government officials should be applauding them, not setting up roadblocks.” 

Starting a street vending business can cost thousands of dollars—tens of thousands if a person is opening a food truck. Obtaining business insurance can cost upwards of $4,000 a year alone, in addition to paying for equipment, supplies, and various permit application fees. IJ’s “Upwardly Mobile” report found most merchants operating a full-time street vending business make less than $18,000 a year in personal income, despite working more than 11 hours a day, five and a half days a week.  

Sixty-two percent of vendors are persons of color, and more than a quarter didn’t complete high school. Approximately 51% of street vendors are immigrants, some of whom might not have the money to afford the startup costs, let alone liability insurance. Making merchants purchase expensive insurance or obtain costly permits creates unnecessary roadblocks for these already burdened communities.  

People turn to street vending to make a living, but burdensome requirements shut the door on them before they can even get started. Street vending can enrich communities by introducing residents to delicious foods and products from around the world. Some street merchant collectives are ranked among the best restaurants in cities like New York. Municipalities shouldn’t stop entrepreneurship by enacting barriers to business—allowing some with the means to flourish while others flounder.  

At the Institute for Justice, we celebrate how street vending can help enrich communities and give immigrant and/or low-income communities a way to climb the socio-economic ladder. But too often municipalities enact ordinances that make it difficult, or even impossible, to legally operate. In Palm Springs, it’s exciting to see the positive impact street vending can have, but there’s still some work to be done. The city should allow street vending to provide hard-working individuals with an honest living without unnecessary government interference. 

Tell us about your case 

The Institute for Justice is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to purse their dreams. IJ has represented food truck owners and other vendors facing irrational regulations that create barriers, not solutions, to complex societal problems. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case, visit ij.org/report-abuse/.  

About the Institute for Justice 

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty, defending the rights of Americans all over the country, including those who want to provide private solutions to public problems like homelessness. From suing the FBI to get people’s property returned to them to helping rural Georgians save their land from being taken by a private railroad, IJ aims to protect everyday Americans’ civil liberties free of charge. For more information on the Institute for Justice and its work, visit https://ij.org/.