By Esther Honig
Public Radio Reporting at Mills College
Oakland is known for its food trucks, which serve everything from tacos and tamales to West African cuisine. But few know that this latest culinary trend got its start in Fruitvale almost 30 years ago. Fruitvale still has the city’s largest concentration of mobile food vendors – a predominantly immigrant population. These micro-businesses provide owners low overhead and the opportunity to become successful entrepreneurs. But if running a small business isn’t hard enough in this economy, vendors now face the added challenge of armed robbery. Crimes against mobile merchants have spiked in the last six months.
On the corner of International and Fruitvale Avenue, Karinia Flores, owner of Soledad, sells Tamales, Pupusas, Tortas on a bright pink cart. She begins her day by preparing the food at 4am, opens her cart by 7am, and closes by noon. As the manager of the family business, she is there every day of the week with an occasional Sunday off. Flores’ mother founded the cart 12 years ago upon arriving in United States. “Since then she has worked in her own business,” said Flores. “Serving the community and selling her Pupusas and working.”
Flores and her family immigrated from Mexico and, like many who start up a mobile food operation, they were drawn to the prospect of a stable income and the opportunity to invest in a business. Unlike brick and mortar establishments, mobile food vendors pay a much lower overhead, making it accessible to people from many income levels. “You can feed your families, build your homes, and send your children to college,” said Shelly Garza. Garza is the owner and manager of La Placita, a family-run business in Fruitvale that supports and organizes small businesses and mobile food vendors. “I love my food vendors. I have people that dehydrate, do beef jerky. Oaktown Jerk is here with us. I have a new lady that does kale.”
Garza’s mom founded The Center in 1998 at the request of merchants. “She was able to…associate all the fruit vendors which were all competitors at the time,” said Shelly. “[They] really didn’t get along…but she brought them together and taught them that in unity there’s a strength.”
Over the past 13 years, Garza’s mother created a network of 55 mobile food vendors. But it was not a simple process. “It was a struggle because actually the city was not really welcoming,” said Oakland City Council Member Ignacio De la Fuente. In the 1990s, according to De la Fuente, the streets of Fruitvale were chaotic. Vendors used shopping carts instead of pushcarts. Some prepared their food at home, sometimes in unsanitary conditions. Vendors fought each other, as well as authorities, for territory and the right to sell. Legal standing would be necessary if these small businesses were to survive.
“We crafted an ordinance that would allow them to operate,” said De la Fuente. “Together we established that process. Now some of them own restaurants and are more established. It really changed the face of Fruitvale.”
Now, said Garza, violence has increased. Because Mobile food vendors operate on the streets and often stay open late, they have less security than restaurants. Most mobile food vendors also deal exclusively in cash, making them easy targets for robberies. For this reason, some Mobile Food vendors are referred to as “walking ATMs.”
“That sent a fire in my belly like I had never had,” said Garza. “I was very angry.”
Five-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr. was killed on December 30, 2011 at his parents’ taco truck on International Boulevard when a stray bullet hit him during an armed robbery. In the past year, armed robberies have become more frequent. Almost all of Garza’s vendors have been assaulted at one point. In a recent community meeting in Fruitvale, Ana Martinez, the Oakland Police Department’s Neighborhood Service Coordinator, spoke with vendors about safety. Martinez grew up in Fruitvale and works as a liaison between the local community and the Oakland Police Department.
“The type of crime is changing,” said Martinez, who has noticed an increase in gun violence. “It’s at a level that I feel has shocked the community right now.”
Many vendors have begun arming themselves as a defense against these destructive robberies while others are willing to pool together the money to hire private armed security officers.
“I’m not an economist, but I’ve seen some of the effects of the bad economy, whether it’s the banks foreclosing on people’s homes or just people having a hard time finding jobs,” said Martinez. “Fruitvale’s just a microcosm of what’s going on nationally.”
Because of budget deficits over the past three years, Oakland has had to lay off nearly 200 officers. In 2011, Oakland officials said Fruitvale had the most reported robberies in the city. Currently, there are between six to eight officers on patrol in all of Fruitvale on any given day.
Back on the corner of International Boulevard at El Soleda, the threat is still very real. Karinia Flores says that she has now been robbed twice. “There’s more crime, there are more offenses, there are many ugly things. This is a very big obstacle for us because this is how we make a living. We like to work, it’s just that we are risking our lives.”
Flores used to open her cart much earlier to catch the breakfast rush at 6:00 am but one morning her cart was robbed and she lost all the cash in her register. But she says the money doesn’t really matter.
“You carry the trauma that has affected you, because of everything that you have lived through you remain in fear, you lose trust,” says Flores.
To combat the effect high crime levels are having on businesses, the mobile food vendor community, along with La Placita, has been working to install cameras on carts and trucks. The Oakland Police are encouraging people to report all crimes and suspicious activity.
“We pay our taxes, we pay our permits,” Flores said. “We do everything right, and with God’s blessing we can do this. If the city and the police supports us, we can continue with our work and serving the community.”
With over 350 businesses, Fruitvale is bustling with economic growth. It’s a resilient neighborhood. Owners and residents say they are determined to stand by their community during this most recent down turn.
This story originally aired on May 21, 2012.