who gets to serve food on the sidewalk?

who gets to serve food on the sidewalk?
Streetside banh cam in Saigon.

Pre-pandemic, restaurants had to go through a lengthy and costly application to obtain a revocable use permit to use their sidewalk as a dining area. Very late last week, the city unveiled a new thing called L.A. Al Fresco, a temporary program that slices through all that cumbersome red tape so restaurants can set up outdoor dining immediately. Theoretically, this is to help them with social distancing and expand their real estate, because restaurants can only re-open at 60% capacity, the county really hasn’t gotten this virus under control, there are still new cases and deaths every day, and weren’t we all just told that we’d be staying at home pretty much through the summer?

What baffles me is not just the abruptness of this announcement — as many restaurant owners and chefs noted, there was no heads up that this was coming — but just how starkly it stands in contrast to the state of sidewalk vending in L.A. As of this writing, there is no temporary L.A. Al Fresco-equivalent program to streamline the street vending permit process. Indeed, the L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program officially launched in early January, but vendors — even those who have a sellers permit, a county health permit, and a tax registration certificate — still face a byzantine and costly process to get their permit to vend. Given how quickly the city moved to privatize public space for restaurants, you get the sense that despite recent gestures towards embracing street vending, it’s really all been at arm’s length. You get the sense the decades-long animosity against street vendors remain deeply, deeply embedded in the walls of City Hall.

Put the two programs, mindful of their histories, side by side, and it’s hard to ignore the incongruities. A few choice examples that caught my eye as I flipped through the materials:


March 17

Street vending: “… it is necessary to impose a temporary moratorium* on street vending in the public right of way to protect Angelenos from the novel Coronavirus pandemic.” [City Council Motion]

* It was later clarified that the motion didn’t literally mean “moratorium,” that it was just meant to immediately begin enforcement against vendors without a health permit (specifically calling out the health permit above all the other permits you need to street vend tells you a lot about the city’s actual feelings about street vendors). Vendors previously had been given six months to get the requisite permits to sell curbside; the elimination of that grace period effectively is a moratorium on street vending.
  • Restaurants, broadly: “Though [restaurant] closures are critical in mitigating the spread of the coronavrius and ensuring the public health of Angelenos, many restaurants in the industry are small, family-owned enterprises that do not have the financial capacity to withstand long term closures. …. [T]he City should explore opportunities to provide financial relief that complement any State and Federal programs that are made available.” [City Council Motion]


  • May 20, regarding the L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program: “The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and corresponding State and local ‘stay-at-home’ orders have had a severe public health, social and economic impact on the City’s street vendors. Additionally, this community has largely been ineligible to receive any form of federal financial assistance. On December 17, 2019, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an Ordinance (No. 186478) which created the Sidewalk and Park Vending Trust Fund and established permit fees. … A possible solution [to assist vendors who have tried to obtain, or incurred costs in trying to obtain, the proper permits] would be … to extend the effective period of the reduced fee until July 1, 2021, or one year after the City’s ‘stay-a-home’ order is lifted.” [City Council Motion]
  • May 29, launch of L.A. Al Fresco: “L.A. Al Fresco is a temporary program that streamlines requirements and approvals across multiple City departments for outdoor dining on sidewalks and parking lots, potentially expanding to streets at a later date.” [LA Al Fresco FAQ]


L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program
$291 until July 1; after July 1, the fee increases to $541 unless the City Council passes a motion to extend the reduced fee.

  • The city also is “looking into the feasibility of refunding the entire amount to those who have applied for permits and paid the permits for street vending.” [City Council Motion]

L.A. Al Fresco
$0. If a restaurant wants to continue with sidewalk dining after the program ends, it will have to apply and pay for a revocable permit.

Application Process

L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program

  • January: “In the coming months, StreetsLA will schedule specific days when remote registration will be available at eight EWDD BusinessSource Centers and other locations around the City. Additional information is not yet available since the remote registration system is still in development.” [Citywide Sidewalk and Park Vending Program Launch FAQ]

April: With offices closed, street vending permits currently are only available by appointment: “Vending Permits are by appointment only. Vendors must have all necessary documentation and make an appointment by calling (213) 847-6000.”  [Bureau of Street Services Announcement]

nb The ~entire~ process to get all the required permits is expensive, convoluted, and unclear.

L.A. Al Fresco
A remote registration system has been developed: L.A. Al Fresco Application.

If you go through the application process, you’ll see there’s a box where you type in the details of the planned outdoor area (“(tables, chairs, etc.)”). You can, but don’t have to, attach drawings or photos. Then you answer yes/no to a few of certifications about insurance and that you’ve read all the rules related to the program and that’s it! It seems very easy! Also “Eligible restaurants will immediately receive approval for sidewalks and private parking lots upon application” !

Heed These Incredibly Specific Rules for the Hollywood Walk of Fame

L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program
Vending is prohibited within 500 feet of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. [LA City Municipal Code §42.13(C)(2)(b); City of Los Angeles Sidewalk Vending Rules]

L.A. Al Fresco
“At all times, tables, chairs, and umbrellas shall stay clear a minimum of 18-inches  away from the edge of the square that holds an honorees’ star.” [Bureau of Engineering]

Enforcement, or: Who Will Be Policed

L.A. Sidewalk & Park Vendor Permit Program
See the non-moratorium moratorium on March 17th, referenced above.

And so: “Vendors will be fined $250 to $1,000 for not having a proper license or permit." [Bureau of Street Service’s Commonly Asked Questions]

  • Also LOL that this bit about the fine is the first answer to the first question — “What if I don’t get a permit?”on a remarkably uninformative FAQ page. The county’s Department of Public Health also has a convenient infographic about the fine as part of its “Guidance for Street Vendors” and tweeted about it as well.]

L.A. Al Fresco
Restaurant / Business Owner shall display/post the Sidewalk Dining Temporary Use Authority in plain view from the outside of the restaurant indicating participation in the program.” [Bureau of Engineering]

More generally: “Health officials will not be inspecting restaurants as a requirement to reopen, [county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer] added, saying businesses are on ‘the honor system’ to follow the new standards.” [LAist]

Anything else? Let me know if I missed something-



a monthly food and labor newsletter