Over the last ten months, the small Sara’s Market on City Terrace Drive has been a haven for burgeoning restaurant entrepreneurs. Not only does the shop supply everyday goods for the Eastside neighborhood at the edge of City Terrace and East LA, it carries small, local producers for things like wine, coffee, chorizo, and tortillas. Out on the sidewalk, a different kind of marketplace takes hold nightly, as customers hover around whichever food stand is set up under the street lamps, cooking away.
Many notable names, from Bootleg Pizza (now with its own storefront on Pico Boulevard) to Evil Cooks, have walked away from Sara’s Market with new fans and plenty of social media buzz. More than anything, the sidewalk at Sara’s has been a safe space, an open area for emerging new vendors (almost always restaurant workers and other unemployed folks) to rotate in and out, earning at least a semblance of a living during such a terrible year for the dining scene at large.
That was until last week when Yellow Paper Burger, the busy new backyard operators from Monterey Park, got shut down by the Bureau of Street Services and the LA County Department of Public Health. Half a dozen trucks swooped in, blocking traffic and dumping food, leaving Yellow Paper owners Colin Fahrner and Katie Reid Burnett with nothing but a citation and DMs filled with preorders they could no longer fulfill.
Now, as one of the city’s bright young burger vendors ponders what’s next, Sara’s Market owners Sara and Steven Valdes must choose their own path: Continue to offer space for vendors to make a living, or shut down the nightly cooks to keep the city of Los Angeles at bay?
So far, Sara Valdes tells Eater, they’ve chosen to continue to support their community, which includes local fans and an ever-growing roster of up-and-coming pop-up chefs. “We’re still here,” she told Eater by phone this week. “We’re going to continue to provide that platform for any vendor that is trying to make ends meet.” Tonight is Ronnie’s Kickin’ Chicken, a hot chicken sandwich setup; Saturday it’s the Wing Man.
“At a moment like this,” Valdes said, “we all need to stick together to survive. It’s not a time to start excluding people.” Valdes said that the Department of Public Health’s enforcement officers have been aware of the vendors at her market for some time, but that regulation has usually been lax — though she still doesn’t know why Yellow Paper was targeted for enforcement in the first place. “They didn’t want to talk to me,” she said of the officers dumping food in front of her business.
Truth be told, vending always been an uncertain path, fraught with worries about crackdowns from city and county officials. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Los Angeles City Council voted to effectively ban street food altogether, putting thousands of small family businesses, mostly run by immigrants and women of color, at risk; by early summer, Mayor Eric Garcetti was adding licensed vendors to his LA Al Fresco outdoor dining pitch. There are few solid answers as to the still-murky future of vending in LA County, thanks to cumbersome legislation and costly legal hurdles. For many, places like Sara’s Market or the wilds of Instagram’s home bakeries are the only reasonable path forward right now.
“I’m glad that I have a place I can provide for people to come to make ends meet,” says Valdes, “even if it’s just for that month.” So for now, they continue, knowing that the next health department surprise could be right around the corner. “We’re blessed that we’re able to be open every day, but we’re just getting by month to month ourselves. Still, we can only imagine how hard it is for everybody else in the food industry.”