The day to day pressures of the food industry are such that it doesn't take much to knock a business off course. Slim profits, sales that are tanked by bad weather, the continual competition with the latest-and-greatest, not to mention the brutal work schedule, is tough enough. The current closures may well be the final straw for many. It was for me.
FaVe Tacos has closed for good. I’m the (former) owner and creator of the locally-sourced veggie taco shop, which I operated at San Diego farmers markets and events for the past two and a half years.
They were some of my hardest, yet happiest times, but barely staying in business week to week meant that I simply didn’t have the economic momentum I needed to move beyond farmers markets to a brick and mortar, let alone weather the current storm of market closures.
After researching the costs of opening a brick and mortar last year, I discovered that it would take about $100,000 to open a modest shop, not including the monthly $5,000 or more I’d need to come up with for rent, plus labor, insurance, and food costs. I, like many other business owners out there, was already working 14 or 15 hour days, yet I still wasn’t in a financial position to make that dream happen.
On March 6th, I stopped at ‘Business Costco’ on Othello Avenue on my way to the First Friday Night Market, only to find them sold out of most of what I needed. It turned out not to matter, as it was our slowest sales day ever, at what is usually a packed event. I already knew my closure was probably imminent, but the COVID-19 outbreak, and its devastating effect on the food vending industry, made it immediate.
The following week, on March 12th, the permits that allow farmers markets and events to operate legally were pulled and the buzzing of open air business came to a halt. My fellow vendors across San Diego County’s farmers markets were forced to follow suit and close. This meant an instant loss of income, for many, their sole income.
“[This is] probably the worst time to not be making money with all the taxes due in April, not to mention monthly costs like rent, insurance, and car payments,” said Grant Plummer, owner of Veg’n Out. Rent for commercial kitchen space will still be due April first, along with a multitude of other bills.
Confronted with vanishing incomes, many small business owners were swift to take action to keep themselves afloat. Many farmers and pre-packaged food vendors like Rawsome Delights pulled together and are now offering delivery of their products through their websites or an online service called MarketBoxSD, a service put together over the weekend by a farmers market vendor to enable the pooling of products and streamlined deliver to San Diego customers.
“While this has proved to be an additional source of revenue in this crisis, sales are only a fraction of what they were before,” said Barbara Zeiss, owner of Rawsome Delights in Carlsbad. “I have thousands of dollars worth of [foodstuffs] that may go bad. That is my cash flow, I need to sell it so that I will have cash when the crisis is over to buy more product and continue on.”
This is a common theme not only for farmers market vendors, but almost every restaurant owner across the nation, whose empty dining rooms stand in stark contrast to local grocery stores where lines run out the doors and shelves are empty.
While some farmers and makers of pre-packaged goods are still managing to make a few sales, there is another category of farmers market vendor with an even more uncertain future, my former colleagues, the hot food vendors.
One week into the event shutdown, I spoke with Chef/Owner Candread Gadaga of Sabor Piri-Piri. Normally the man with the friendliest smile in the market, when asked how much income of any kind he’d had since the markets closed, his grim reply was ‘zero’. When asked if he would deliver food from his prep kitchen to hungry customers around San Diego he said he could not.
Hot food vendors make up a large portion of most farmers markets and operate under the Temporary Food Facility Permit. This permit only allows sales at events and farmers markets registered with the Health Department and, as a rule, disallows sales elsewhere. This means vendors are not allowed to drop off or pick-up of hot meals, so, unless the Health Department were to make a special allowance for that during this crisis, every single one are prohibited from doing business, aside from the few who also have catering licenses.
While restaurants have been allowed to stay open as long as there are no dine-in customers, hot food vendors have not been allowed the same liberties, despite the fact that food vendors, by law, already operate out of commercial prep kitchens that have passed inspections by the San Diego County Health Department.
Farmers markets are one of the few places small businesses can start up with a more modest budget, and this bastion of opportunity in our expensive city needs to be preserved. What’s the answer? Some would argue that social distancing would be more easily achieved in open air markets than grocery store aisles*, but even given the current restrictions, it is vital to support pop-up farm stands and the online and delivery options offered by prepared food vendors and restaurants.
But what about the hot food vendors?
If these restrictions continue for more than two weeks, many will face bankruptcy. Many, like me, will close for good.
I contacted the County Health Department to see if any allowances would be made for those holding Temporary Food Facility Permits. I was told it was being looked into. As of the publication of this article, I am still awaiting an update.
*Certified San Diego County farmers markets are currently working on putting systems in place to allow for social distancing. The County may allow them to re-open soon. This story will be updated when and if new information becomes available.