Juan Fernandez and Cameron Kude stand in front of their mobile coffee cart at Junipero Beach on August 17, 2021. Photo by Jason Ruiz

Cameron Kude and Juan Fernandez milled around their yellow tuk tuk turned mobile coffee cart this week as the last of the day’s customers trickled in to get their caffeine fix at the Junipero Beach parking lot where they’ve made a temporary home for their business, known as Cafablanca.

The couple’s cart plays jazz classics from a Bluetooth speaker that can be heard from the cafe tables they have set up on the sidewalk next to the sand. The cart is decorated with rainbow hearts and coffee mugs printed with support for groups like Black Lives Matter and the abolition of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A new message, displayed on the cart’s letter-board, spells out the couple’s current dilemma: Street vendors are not criminals.

The two started a catering business in February 2020 but the pandemic forced their yellow tuk tuk off of movie sets and events and onto the city’s streets. The cortados, Americanos and flat whites they’ve served to the Long Beach community over the past 16 months are paid for in donations, and are also illegal, according to the city’s municipal code.

They hope to change that.

Following months of run-ins with city employees who have threatened to cite them for illegal food vending, or impound their coffee cart, Kude and Fernandez made the decision in March to continue to operate in defiance to raise awareness of the plight of the city’s food vendors.

They’ve popped up inside businesses, in backyards and at the beach, trying to outpace city officers and keep their small business afloat. On Tuesday, Kude called on the City Council to enact a moratorium on citations for street food vendors like the Los Angeles City Council did at the end of June.

“For us to be receiving this messaging for over a year that being indoors is risky, and minimize your time in public indoor spaces, we’re trying to do exactly that,” Kude said, adding that their business model follows the guidance of federal health officials to move business outside when possible.

“We’re trying to give people an opportunity to get a good cup of coffee that doesn’t involve walking into a petri dish of a coffee shop.”

In Long Beach, new case rates are among the highest in all of LA County, and hospitalizations are climbing, according to city data

The Los Angeles moratorium will be in place for six months after the COVID-19 state of emergency is ended. It bans city employees from issuing fines for those operating without a license or permit and encourages city workers to do educational outreach to help walk vendors through the permitting process. It also extended a reduction in permit fees to 2022.

Prior to the LA vote, the Long Beach City Council voted on June 15 to look into ways to improve safety for street vendors after a series of highly publicized attacks, but did not address permitting.

On Tuesday, Kude reminded Mayor Robert Garcia that he made him a cappuccino at the grand reopening of Community Hospital Long Beach in May and asked why their coffee was OK to be served at a city sponsored event but not on the corner of Broadway and Hermosa Avenue, where the couple had set up shop in front of the Black LBC bar for months.

“Two weeks before that city employees threatened to impound my coffee cart and told me that I could face jail time,” Kude said Tuesday.

Garcia and city management said Tuesday that the city is in the process of updating its municipal code and regulations for food trucks, which Kude’s cart technically falls under. However, that will require a consultant and could take some time.

In the interim, the city must follow state laws like Senate Bill 946, which put in place a number of protections for street vendors, but still allows cities to cite them for not having proper permits or maintaining sanitary work environments.

Mozhgan Mofidi, an officer with Long Beach’s environmental health bureau, said that permitting for street food vendors is not a one-sized fits all situation, but they all must have a business license and a health permit.

Mofidi explained that often times the requirements for a vendor vary based on what they sell, how they intend to sell it and their mode of transportation. For instance, some vendors who sell perishable goods need refrigeration, while others can be permitted without one.

Pre-packaged goods typically come with fewer restrictions, Mofidi said, and the type of product you sell could require you to have a three-compartment sink and/or hand washing station. If a vendor is selling cheeseburgers, they would need a sink, she explained, but if they were selling popsicles they would not.

Mofidi said the health department encourages vendors to reach out to them to work out a plan that can result in their permits being approved by the city, and their products being safe for public consumption. Their goal is maintaining public safety by preventing food-borne illness, she said.

“When it comes to food safety, we don’t make exceptions,” Mofidi said. “If we find there is a danger to the public we cannot wait until someone gets sick. If we know about it we need to do something.”

Kude thinks that the regulations are too strict. Their cart uses disposable cups, which eliminates the need to wash dishes while also helping to protect customers, he said.

But in order to be permitted they would have to have a three-compartment sink, something that is unnecessary and impractical, Kude said.

When the pandemic ends and catering jobs become more plentiful Kude said he and Fernandez intend to pivot back to serving at events rather than working on the streets. But the fight they’re waging now is to protect their business, as well as others who make their living selling food on the streets of Long Beach.

“We’re in a very special situation with public health and the public health emergency that we’re in right now where street vendors should be celebrated,” Kude said. “By our very nature we are reducing community transmission of COVID-19 just by being outdoors.” 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.