Benjamin Ramírez, aka the Elote Man, is the closest thing Los Angeles has to a celebrity street cart vendor. Ramirez became a viral video sensation in July, after a guy walking his dog turned over the wheeled cart from which Ramírez sells Mexican snacks such as shaved-ice slushies and fresh ears of corn lathered with mayonnaise and butter, chili pepper and grated cheese.
Ramírez had filmed the attack with his phone, and millions of users watched after his mother uploaded it to Facebook. The video begins as the dog walker, who lives on the residential block in Hollywood where Ramirez had stopped his cart, complained that the vendor was blocking the sidewalk. The man delivered an ultimatum in Spanish: “Move the cart or I’ll move it for you.”
Ramírez kept filming as he defended himself by tossing the contents of a small container of chili powder at his assailant. The video led to an outpouring of sympathy for Ramírez and for the trials of many street vendors like him who've long been fighting for the legalization of their livelihood.
On Nov. 8, L.A. City Council backed a set of proposed rules for the legalization of vendors who hawk food and snacks from ice cream and fresh fruit to pupusas and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The proposed rules lay out an extremely precise set of restrictions. Here's how the L.A. Times described them:
Under the draft rules, only two carts would be allowed per block on each side of the street in commercial and industrial zones. Mobile vendors who sell food could do business in residential areas as long as each sale does not last more than seven minutes. Sidewalk sellers would also have to follow complicated rules about where they can set up shop. For instance, they would be banned from doing business within five feet of driveways, bus benches, fire hydrants, crosswalks, outdoor dining areas and “any area improved with lawn, flowers, shrubs” or trees; within 10 feet of transit shelters, the rear of a parking meter, or the front of any marked spot for parallel parking; within 20 feet of historic monuments and murals, sculptures or fountains funded or managed by a city program; and anywhere that interferes with window displays, puts people in danger or impedes access to adjacent businesses.
Ramírez isn't enthusiastic about the proposal. “Working like we do is a struggle, sometimes you sell, sometimes you don’t — it’s a business with a lot of ups and downs,” he says. “I hope the law they pass doesn’t make things more difficult for us than they already are.”
A GoFundMe page set up to compensate Ramírez for the damage to his cart and loss of supplies raised thousands of dollars. Advocates from the Los Angeles Street Vendors Campaign said the altercation highlighted the importance of the City Council clarifying its policy and fully legalizing street vending in the city. And in August, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino met with Ramirez; they discussed Buscaino’s effort to legalize street vending.
“I want to give you the first permit in the city of Los Angeles for legalized street vending,” Buscaino tells Ramírez in a video posted on Buscaino’s Facebook page.
The time limit of seven minutes on a sale from a mobile food cart is of particular concern to Elote Man. Unlike the small, light pushcarts used by ice cream vendors in the city, Ramírez's cart weighs an estimated 300-plus pounds when it's fully loaded with the 100-pound block of ice for the slushies, the separate buckets with a day’s supply of esquite and elote, the condiments and the sun umbrella.
Ramírez pushes the cumbersome cart from where he loads it near Western and Melrose to Hollywood and Vine. He and his father, Alex, stop for at least an hour in the afternoon to sell snacks at the corner of Romaine and El Centro, where the neighbors have come to expect them.
“The stores are far away,” says Alba Bonilla, who has lived in the neighborhood 23 years. “He provides a service to the community.”
“People know we’re there and know what time they can find us,” Ramírez says. “We’d have to change the way we do business if we had to keep moving every seven minutes.”
About two miles away, at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, the sidewalk traffic was congested with the familiar pageant of vendors, superheroes and hustlers of every sort. Traffic cops directed motorists around the line of limousines at a party sponsored by Estrella TV that was blocking the westbound lane of Hollywood Boulevard.
There was Superman, Minnie Mouse, Willy Wonka and Edward Scissorhands. Guys on foot were hawking CDs, guys with bullhorns were proselytizing Jesus, guys with stargazing vans were parked illegally in a red curb zone.
“When business people say it’s a chaotic scene, there’s all different elements out here,” says sidewalk vendor Varian Gray. “Chewbacca’s famous out here for getting in fights with people and yelling at tourists.”
Gray stood behind a table off to the side of the Walk of Fame, selling an assortment of merchandise, mostly toys like spinners and hamburger squishies; for $10 you could pose for a photo with his red-tailed boa, Melania.
“I’m no different from these guys here,” he says, gesturing toward the opposite side of the busy sidewalk at a storefront with an American Eagle Outfitters.
Gray wasn’t happy when he learned the city was preparing to ban street vending within 500 feet of Hollywood Boulevard. “It’s a clear case of the big guy taking everything and the little guy can’t get nothing.”
Gray estimated he has paid five or six administrative citations from police in the past year for vending. He says he fears that associations like the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance may have undue influence on the outcome of the proposal.
“I would propose the city look at it a little deeper than they have,” he says. “What about what we need to succeed? There's no reason we can't coexist.”