Move it or lose it

City cracks down on food trucks, vendors cry ‘ethnic cleansing’

James “Roots” Ortiz, left, and Kimba Kabaka, right, say the city’s crackdown on mobile food vendors unfairly targets ethnic businesses.

James “Roots” Ortiz, left, and Kimba Kabaka, right, say the city’s crackdown on mobile food vendors unfairly targets ethnic businesses.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In response to complaints that mobile food vendors are hurting local “brick and mortar” businesses, the city of Sacramento plans to tighten current mobile-vendor ordinances. However, some vendors say the city’s complaints don’t hold water and are merely an attempt to stamp out ethnic businesses.

Kimba Kabaka and James “Roots” Ortiz own and operate Roots-N-Kulchah, an all-vegan, Caribbean-style food truck that operates on the corner of 24th and K streets in Midtown Sacramento. Since June last year, Kabaka and Ortiz’s gold truck has developed quite a following, with dishes like baked tofu and coconut-mango stew. Their success has been documented in The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento Magazine and SN&R (see “Food Stuff”; SN&R Dish; August 25, 2005).

However, Roots-N-Kulchah’s success has its drawbacks. Over the past several months, Kabaka and Ortiz have seen people drive by shouting racial slurs at them and noticed mysterious camera flashes from time to time. A neighboring restaurant owner even pulled Ortiz aside one day to tell him an undercover cop stopped by, asking about potential drug activity at the business.

“Selling drugs? Come on, on 24th Street? They must think we’re ignorant,” Kabaka said angrily.

Now Ortiz and Kabaka say the city has finally gotten around to ridding 24th and K of the Rasta men. Sacramento’s Law and Legislation Committee is in the process of reviewing Sacramento City Code Chapters 5.68 and 5.88, the ordinances that control the operation of mobile food vendors.

The code currently says that vendors are allowed to stand still for 15 minutes when in the public right of way. They are also allowed to stay fixed on private property as long as they have a written letter from the person in charge of the property. Until recently, the code had not been strictly enforced, but all of that may change.

City of Sacramento Revenue Manager Brad Wasson says the city is only looking to change some of the language in the code to clarify its original intent. Wasson and staff propose that mobile food vendors be just that: mobile. And to ensure that these vendors stay in motion, he is working to extend the 15-minute rule to vendors on private property. In addition, vendors who violate the code may be charged with a misdemeanor.

“[These vendors] are getting around putting up a restaurant,” Wasson said. “That wasn’t the intent of the code.” Wasson estimates that there are approximately five mobile food vendors fixed on private property.

But many of these vendors are left wondering, “Why now?”

George Azar, owner of La Mex Taqueria, has operated his food truck on Northgate Boulevard for eight years. He said that shortly after he opened his business, some of the local restaurants began to lose business. Those owners, he said, began talking to the city, claiming that La Mex Taqueria was bringing problems into the community. That’s when the city began to take action.

“If a restaurant’s sales are falling, they should improve their food or their service. Government should not take a position of restricting competition in our free-enterprise, capitalist society,” Azar said.

Azar, fearful of the new provisions, says that if he is forced to move every 15 minutes his business will be wiped out.

Kabaka echoed his concern: “What are you going to tell the people in line? ‘I got to go. Meet me up the street’?” Kabaka, who sometimes has up to 15 people waiting in line, also said that it’s nearly impossible to cook for that many people in 15 minutes.

“We’ll have to use some discretion when enforcing the 15 minutes,” Wasson said about the problem. He suggested that code-enforcement staff might subtly go to the operators and allow them to serve a specific number of people after the 15 minutes.

“We’re not trying to come out here with a big stick,” Wasson said.

But Kabaka and Ortiz cannot help but feel targeted. “All the people that do what we do are people of color, ethnic people,” Kabaka said.

Wasson said that ethnicity or certain areas of the city weren’t even something the Law and Legislation Committee even considered. He pointed to the same sort of controversy that arose when the city reformed ordinances pertaining to taxi drivers.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the background of the people,” Wasson said.

Kabaka and Ortiz have no idea what they will do if they are forced to move. “People will be pissed,” Kabaka said. “[They] depend on our food because that’s the only place they can eat this way.”

The pair has already begun collecting signatures to fight the change, before the Law and Legislation Committee makes a decision on June 6.

“This is our livelihood,” Ortiz said. “And the clock is ticking.”