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City Policy on Street Vendors Counter to Desire for Vibrant Streets

April 13, 2008 Downtown, Local Business 33 Comments

Bustling sidewalks and numerous food vendors are hallmarks of great urban streets. Food vendors sell everything from hot dogs, pretzels, nuts, ice cream, water/soda, kabobs and all sorts of other street food. In St. Louis our laws severely limit food & other street vendors leaving our sidewalks less than lively than they could or should be.
By design food vendors are limited to the CBD with a maximum number of 10 permits being issued. Yes only 10 permits are issued for the entire city. When I was in Toronto in 2006, for example, I could often see 10 vendors up and down streets from a single position. All cities place limitations on the use of the public sidewalk — that is reasonable. But there is a point where you can get so restrictive then you don’t achieve the type of environment that you want. More pedestrians would certainly attract more retailers, residents and businesses.

The argument against an increased number of food vendor permits is that they compete with established restaurants that have greater investments in their location and such. I don’t personally buy into this argument.

The person seeking a nice sit-down lunch isn’t going to grab a $3 hot dog just because they pass a vendor. Similarly, the person that wants a veggie dog with sauerkraut isn’t necessarily going to eat out an a restaurant if said dog is not available from a vendor.

We never have all 10 vendors out at one time. The hot dog vendors we do have lack a veggie dog option — very frustrating to this fan of street food. Every vendor I encountered in both Toronto and Vancouver, for example, offered veggie dogs. I see a potential void in the market here but these vendors have a lock on all the permits — new competition offering more choice is not an option.

Street vending is a

great way to start a small business. Although the carts are not cheap, they certainly require less upfront capital investment than many other businesses.

Vending in the city is limited to a few small districts such as Soulard Market, a section of South Broadway just South of Meramec and a portion of downtown:

A. “Downtown Vending District” shall mean (1) the area bounded by the Mississippi River on the east, Cole Street on the north, Tucker Boulevard on the west and Interstate Highway 64/U.S. Highway 40 on the south; and (2) the area bounded by Fourth Street on the east, Interstate Highway 64/U.S. Highway 40 on the north, the former Ninth Street (vacated by Ordinance 9191) on the west and Gratiot Street on the south.

So while our leaders talk about creating a 24/7 downtown it is clear that is all hot air — they are not doing the things necessary such as totally revising our vendor laws. Currently vending is only allowed from 6am to 11pm. Hardly 24/7. For more information on the city’s vending laws see Revised Code Chapter 8.108A.

Nothing prevents the selling of newspapers — freedom of the press and all — but many newsstand vendors in cities like New York also offer items like candy, water, books and perhaps item targeted to tourists like t-shirts and film. Under St Louis’ law, that would require being inside one of the few & limited vending districts and getting one of the very rare permits.

I’d like to see the sidewalks in our commercial districts teaming with vendors as well as have the storefronts of local businesses spilling out onto the sidewalk.

The sidewalk area in front of the convention center consumed by an ill-placed taxi stand should be packed with all sorts of vendors. Around Metrolink stops downtown we should also see concentrations of vendors. Vendors should also line the sidewalks leading to/from the arch. When people leave the Fox after a play there should be vendors offering street food as well as play-related merchandise.
If the city were to increase the number of permits and open up all the sidewalks to vending I think we’d see more vendors in the market. This would be a very good thing. And I’d be able to get a vegetarian hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut.


Currently there are "33 comments" on this Article:

  1. Janet says:

    I completely agree. I worked downtown for awhile and only encountered one street vendor around at lunchtime, about 3 blocks south of the convention center.

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    We have several pretzel vendors on Jamieson south of Arsenal and I’ve driven by the BBQ guys on N. Grand. . . I guess they don’t have permits.
    I like the concept and have seen it work elsewhere. The fundamental question, remains, however, is the lack of vendors a permit issue or simply a lack of interest/no proven need, here?

    [slp — it is hard to say — given that it is now illegal we can only speculate about the true need/demand.  But given the examples you cite it seems there is some demand out there.  I know of one downtown establishment that has a cart that would like to sell product out on the street away from their establishment.  Why not let them?]  

  3. sonrie says:

    I also agree. The vendors would give those who visit, work, and live in the city a chance to grab a quick bite to eat, not to mention the illusion of busy street corners during the day. I especially like the suggestion to have vendors AFTER events…because there are not tons of places open late at night for food after a game, concert, etc. When I visited NYC (or DC or Chicago), that was one of the things that I loved the most–grabbing a hot dog, browsing through magazines, or picking up a piece of fresh fruit on my way to the bus, train, or museum.

  4. northside neighbor says:

    One thing about having more vendors would be at least we’d have some competition.

    The guy at Olive and 6th burns his sausage daily. Blacked, cracked, and juiceless, this barbeque and grilling regular knows those streetcorner fixed sausages are dead meat.

    His sausages are so big, and he tries to cook them so fast, they’re all burned on the outside

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    From Sauce.com: “Babalu’s hits the streets – Industry vets Dana Holland and John Kekeris are gearing up to make your shopping day. Babalu’s Snack Shack is slated to open at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market on April 26. Don’t think popcorn and peanuts. Think street food with street smarts — nachos in a bag, Caribbean gyros and an assortment of seasonally inspired entrees for shoppers who’ve worked up an appetite.”

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    Outsider observation – given the tendency for many people around here, and enabled by government action, the view seems to be that “my” property and my ability to control it extends to the centerline of the street. Whether it’s valet parking in commercial areas, on-street parking in residential areas, or sidewalk dining nearly-completely blocking public sidewalks, I seriously doubt that you could sell the local business (and residential) communities, and by extension, the Board of Aldermen, on the concept of letting “someone else” set up business on “my” sidewalk . . .

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    I’m thinking the U-City Loop area may be a better candidate/litmus test locally for the concept – has anyone asked Joe Edwards what he thinks? If it works there, it would be an easier sell in downtown STL. Then the real hurdle would be downtown Clayton, which could also benefit from some more dining diversity. Then again, we seem to have no problem with shaved ice vendors locally, something I’ve only seen in older beach resorts elsewhere.
    One big challenge for street vendors is the health department, and vice versa. Some of the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had have come out of coolers on street corners in Denver, but many of the vendors play a game of cat-and-mouse when it comes to complying with the same sanitation standards “real” restaurants are required to meet. The same goes for the bacon-wrapped hot-dog vendors in LA, cooking their wares on cookie sheets. The city walks a fine line between allowing mobile vendors (either carts or “roach coaches”) and not enforcing minimal sanitation standards, for things like running water and preparing food in approved commercial kitchens, and creating a real health hazard.
    And only very-slightly related: http://www.westword.com/2006-06-29/dining/let-s-do-some-crimes/full and http://www.westword.com/2002-02-07/news/the-truck-stops-here/full

  8. 63101 says:

    I’m thinking the U-City Loop area may be a better candidate/litmus test locally for the concept – has anyone asked Joe Edwards what he thinks? If it works there, it would be an easier sell in downtown STL.

    During the summer there’s usually a guy out in front of the Pageant with a cart, selling hot dogs after shows. I always assumed that he was on Edwards’ payroll.

  9. Goat314 says:

    Just another example of city leaders and politicians stifling growth and progression in the city. The same people who are anti-transit, build vinyl siding houses in the city, hate the concept of city vending are the reason why we have high crime, bad school, and a slew of other social problems in St. Louis. Lets face it Missouri is anti-progress and St. Louis leader willingly except this, we must ask ourselves what kind of state doesnt support their economic engine and largest city? hmmmmm maybe Mizzoura! We really need some community organizing going on in St. Louis, until then we can expect the same status quo in the STL…..when we really have world class potential and I’ve traveled enough to know I’m not delusional to think St. Louis could be world class with some better leadership. WAKE UP ST. LOUIS!

  10. look in the mirror says:

    ^ Here we go again, more STL self loathing. STL is world class, and getting better. We are a best kept secret. Our quality of life is excellent, especially for the price; we have wonderful historic neighborhoods and abundant opportunities for cultural enjoyment; St. Louis is a good place.

    Quit complaining about leadership and go out and be part of the positive forces remaking STL for the 21st century. Or, for the terminal self-haters, just move. We’re tired of listening to all the whining.

    [slp — Having a discussion about the elements I’d like to have in my city is being a part of the solution.  If the city were world class and had more urban qualities that add to the quality of like then our population figures would be higher.   All is not perfect in the river city and our leaders need to know our expectations so that we don’t have to leave to find those qualities that are important to us,  Sadly we have too many people that are fine with the status quo and they see all efforts at change, even in a fraction of our small city, as a threat to their lifestyle .  Just because you may be content doesn’t mean everyone else is .]

  11. SillyLocals says:

    Getting to world class status requires open minded leadership, but more importantly, citizens who understand, appreciate and support such leadership. Potential can be found in many places but execution requires challenging the staus quo. See all those SUVs, pickup trucks, BUD beer cans, expanded highways, red t-shirts, poor schools, government jobs, conflicts of interest appointments, favoritism, eminent domain abuse,…welcome to Mizzoura.

  12. Good point about the street vendors…

    I spent a summer in New York City and the street vendors there were incredible. They certainly give a dynamic quality to the city that stone and mortar businesses alone can’t give.

    If only the leadership and some citizens (i.e. look in the mirror) would open their eyes and minds. St. Louis is a great city with the potential to be a world class city. Hopefully these leaders and citizens will get a clue and we can all move forward with much needed progress.

  13. Nick Kasoff says:

    I disagree about the Delmar Loop being a better place for this. In the Loop, many of the businesses actually DO use their sidewalks, for outdoor dining. And the Marketplace at the Loop offers an opportunity for low cost of entry for small businesses … yes, you have to pay rent there, but I’m sure it is lower than a storefront, and you have no buildout cost. And most important, I don’t think the Loop is itching for more sidewalk traffic in the same way that downtown is.

  14. Activity attracts people! It’s ridiculous to think that vendors would impede sidewalk traffic. I’ve never had any problem walking on our “crowded” downtown sidewalks. Moreover, the last thing vendors want is to obstruct the flow of their potential customers.

  15. Craig says:

    I wholeheartedly agree on loosening up the cap on vendor numbers and hours of operation. First, we need more operators of stands because the ones we have are, frankly, not very good at what they do. Burned hot dogs, low quality hot dogs abound. And they are overpriced even by NYC and DC standards.

    Late night vendors would be a hit outside of the downtown bars — no doubt.

  16. john w. says:

    I love hot dogs.

  17. Goat314 says:

    Look in the mirror, I’m not a self-loathing St. Louisan…… I know the city is great! If you read my post instead of jumping to conclusions, you would have noticed that I’m pro-progression and all for community organizing. Currently I cant do much of that, because I’m a full time student, out of state getting a Masters in urban planning. But I plan to come back as soon as possible to help lead a new generation of young St. Louisans who are tired of their suburban hellholes and want to see the city become a more socially and economically thriving area again. BTW I hate FlORIDA!

  18. john w. says:

    Right on Goat… look us up when you get back in town, because there is much work to be done. Maybe by then we’ll have some vendors in the streets selling hot dogs like the ones in the stadium.

  19. Jim Zavist says:

    The free market side of me likes vendors – it’s a great way for someone to start a business with a smaller investment (and to grow it by offering a superior product and superior service). And the good-eating side of me likes the variety. I also don’t see vendors as major competition for established restaurants, either – the “establishment” that needs to be afraid are the fast-food chains, not local sit-down places.
    The challenge we face here is, once again, use of the PUBLIC right-of-way. As I alluded to earlier, too often the adjacent property owner has (too much? appropriate?) veto power over the use of public property. We can choose to push back (limit valet parking, allow more vendors, limit sidewalk dining [to preserve a public walkway]) or we can choose to let individual businesses use the public way, many times poorly and excessively, to the exclusion of other beneficial uses. It’s a choice.
    Another simmering example is the renovated laundry where Buffalo Brewing, Pappy’s BBQ, another restaurant and a new night club are attempting to coexist east of SLU. We went down there early (6:30) one Friday evening to go to the new brewpub and discovered that the nightclub’s valet parking folks had appropriated the entire block of metered parking (in front) and the complex’s parking lot (in back) for the nightclub’s patrons – seems to be both excessive and unfair to me, and likely will result in fewer visits to the other (new and struggling) businesses. Too much thinking that it’s all about me, and too little thinking about how can we all play nice together. Like they say, urban living can be messy, in a good sort of way . . .

  20. william kruse says:

    As a fellow out of town student working on returning with his J.D., I agree with you completely. You never realize how great St. Louis is until you live in Miami.

  21. look in the mirror says:

    Goat-thanks for the clarification. So much of the commentary on blogs has such a negative and cynical tone, it’s discouraging at times to read. In St. Louis, it’s common sport to cite failed leadership as being the root of all of our problems.
    The truth is our fractured leadership structure is how we like it. With our form of politics so localized – all the way down to the neighborhood and ward level – each citizen has greater access to their leaders and their individual voices have more weight in the process.
    The frustration comes in when people try to change the system. The political system we have is part of our culture, and it’s near impossible to change a culture which has developed over 200 years.
    It’s better to learn how pursue your goals within the system than to try to change the system from the outside. You’ll get a lot more done.

    [slp — I don’t like our fractured system one bit — it has aided in the loss of population in the city, the decline of our schools both in the city as well as in poor areas of the county and has municipalities fighting with each other over limited sales tax revenue.  All this while we should be building up our region.  The argument that our voices carry more weight is total hogwash.] 

  22. john w. says:

    Sometimes the negative and cynical tone detected in blog comments is only perceived, and sometimes it is downright deserved. Rose colored glasses don’t allow one to see very clearly sometimes.

  23. look in the mirror says:

    The 1876 decision to divorce the City from the County is what caused our population to decline. If our city limits included St. Louis County, our population would be among the top ten in the US. Instead we have our unique “small town/big city” status, which alot of people like.

    [slp — oh yes citizens of St Louis started our short sided thinking 132 years ago so therefore all future generations must simply accept this as a fact of life.  I am so sick of this crutch. used by people today that are too complacent to rethink how we function.    Also, separating from the county didn’t cause population decline.  Cities that could expand their city limits still lost population in their older core areas — although not to the extent we have.]

  24. Jim Zavist says:

    Like St. Louis, Denver is a city and county and cannot easily expand its boundaries. Between 2000 and 2005, their population grew by more than 3,000, from 554,636 to 557,917. St. Louis city, in contrast, continues to lose population: 1980: 453,085; 1990: 396,685; 2000: 348,189; 2003 estimate: 332,223. St. Louis’ loss of population did not start until after World War II, when the automobile made commuting to the suburbs/county easier. Both metropolitan areas (SMSA) continue to grow, so the question remains, why do more people continue to choose to move out of our city than choose to move in? The answers are many and complex, and include job loss, racism, a perceived lack of new housing, the public school system, the earnings tax and a perception among many people that the county (and beyond) is better than the city in one or more important ways, to them. Until these reasons can be quantified and addressed, including challenging assumptions and taking a hard look at the status quo, we will continue on the same path. The hard reality is that we have the jobs in the region to attract new residents, we just don’t have a compelling reason for many of them to choose the city over the county.

  25. look in the mirror says:

    “….we just don’t have a compelling reason for many of them to choose the city over the county.”

    That is all a matter of opinion. Do you value cities? Do you value knowing your neighbors and having a walkable lifestyle? Do you value diversity? Do you value historic architecture? Would you rather live in a proper neighborhood than a post 1950s vintage subdivision? Do you value abundant street trees and street lights? Do you like the look of brick? Do you like have more park acreage per capita than almost anywhere else in the country? Do you like to be less auto-dependent? Do you want to be involved in your community at the grass roots level? Do you want to be part of something bigger than yourself-the revitalization of a neighborhood or an entire city? Do you want to make the community a better place for those who come after you?

    These are a few of the compelling reasons people choose the city over the county.

  26. john says:

    Population growth-trends reflect relative value and improves when a superior product/jobs/lifestyles are offered. StL population data:
    1900: 575,238
    1920: 772,897
    1950: 856,796
    Yes for many decades great buildings, factories and homes were built as the citizens/leadership proudly created an environment with superior jobs and lifestyles. Those days are history… the population since 1950 has declined precipitously. Relatively simple issues such as street vending now reflect an environment that places higher priorities on established businesses who don’t want to compete over limited opportunities.
    – –
    I suppose Steve is also worried about the BPV pond (among other areas) and sees the potential to turn street life into thriving, competitive and popular spots for small businesses and the public to interact. Gee I wonder if the established businesses in those areas would insist on more tax breaks if these rules were modified?

  27. Jim Zavist says:

    One reason we have “have more park acreage per capita than almost anywhere else in the country” is that our park acreage has remained constant while our population has dropped by nearly 60%! In other words, for those of us who remain, our parks have increased by 240% on a per capita basis simply thru attrition . . .

  28. Goat314 says:

    ^ John, if an established indoor restaurant is feeling economical pressures from hot dog vendors or street performers outside then maybe they should consider doing business in a town of 5,000 or look into some new recipes. Like someone else said….people that want to go into a fancy sit down restaurant will, but we should also have more easily available options for people on the go! Plus everyone knows that street vendors and performers attract crowds and activity (therefore sparking more activity)…..anybody that has been to the most famous American cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Fran, Philly all know what I mean. Anybody who disagrees needs to talk to the millions of people that consume Philly Cheesesteak or Coney Island Hot Dogs. People that rarely leave the area do not realize that St. Louis has the same unique culture and vibe that cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Charlotte crave for! Thats why the try so HAARRRRRD to recreate true urban culture, but that is something reserved for the true historical urban centers…..Like good ole St. Louis and we take it for granite! Just imagine if some of our local delicacies like Toasted Ravioli, personal Imo’s pizzas, Gooey Butter Cake, or Ted Drewes Frozen Custard were served downtown, Gravois, Delmar Loop, and other vibrant areas. When people came in town to St. Louis they would rave about our local delicacy, because it would be something unique to this area. Then when other towns caught on to our local flavor they would have to call it St. Louis style this, St. Louis style that! We got to see the vision people lol! Also street vendors would dismiss the myth that all St. Louis City corners are dangerous and therefore the city is not a viable place for commerce, which seems to be the notion of most suburbanites carry.

  29. Jim Zavist says:

    And yes, look in the mirror, I chose the city over the county when I moved here. But since we’re continuing to see a net population loss in the city, while the metropolitan region continues to grow, there are obviously more people, including more than a few locals, who are voting with their feet and saying suburbia, with all its warts, beats what the city has to offer. I stand by my last statement, that until we can quantify and address these reasons, including challenging assumptions and taking a hard look at the status quo, we will continue on the same path as places like Detroit.

    [slp — our region is hardly growing.  If anything we are seeing people moving into the city.  But we’ve so suburbanized the city now for those of us that city environments it offers little.] 

  30. Jim Zavist says:

    Interesting quote from Mike Huckabee, making a speech in Schenectady, NY: “Huckabee described his utopian state — he called it “Hucktown” — where people are hardworking, educated and respect each others’ rights. They “self-govern,” following what Huckabee presented as “natural laws” obvious to all people.
    “When people self-govern in Hucktown, they don’t need any policemen, jail beds, social service counselors and public works people to clean up after all the litter that they don’t make,” he said. “When people don’t respect themselves and each other, and the world in which they live, government gets very expensive.”
    Unfortunately, government in St. Louis is expensive, for all of those reasons . . .

  31. john says:

    One of the more creative and early uses of autos (as explained before) was to park in front of established businesses to block potential customers.
    – –
    It’s funny how people try to put words into others’ entries. I never said anything against vendor as i’m all for more as most restaurants here are subpar, at best. But this is StL where status quo reigns and these decisions will be made behind closed doors.
    – –
    In StL, people believe that eating Philly cheesecake or Coney Dogs is “getting out to see the world”. Well that world is too small for me. Personally I prefer visiting street vendors for gofry in Prague, finding great pretzels near the House of Representatives in Berlin, having rurki in Rynek Glowney, or even closer to home, eating seafood tacos in Las Palmas Bay.
    – –
    Like someone else said (insight!), street vending is a good way to start a small business. I’d say limited vision inevitably means limited results …that’s StL,at best.

    [slp — street food need not be a substitute for travel but more would add to the the vibrancy of our own sidewalks.  We are known for a few food item such as toasted ravioli — that would make a great street food to be sold downtown. ] 

  32. Kara says:

    Okay, so several of us want to see street vendors. I know I would like to buy street food, and would buy it a few times a week if it were available. I would like to know what we can do to get more street vendors. Maybe we can work with one alderman to have the rules relaxed in his or her ward for this summer and see how it goes? It could be considered an experiment to potentially be carried out city-wide in the future. I see this as working best at hubs of activity that already exist. Several big retail holes that exist are around most metrolink stops. Large quantities of people walk through and near these every day and there often isn’t one single place to spend money. Anyone know which alderman we might propose this to? Which one might get it?


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