For Queens restaurant owner Evelia Coyotzi, making tamales is a complicated process that can take hours. Cooking them, though, has changed her life.
“Nobody knows this, and I haven’t told anybody, but being able to cook tamales is like owning an energy bar,” Coyotzi said in Spanish through an interpreter.
She said that energy bar has helped her find success in her own brick-and-mortar restaurant, Evelia’s Tamales, where she prepares more than 1,000 tamales a day.
Her food journey began in 2001 with selling tamales on the street. She struggled to handle the difficulty of becoming a legal food vendor, including often getting in trouble with the law.
Advocates say Coyotzi’s struggles are typical among food vendors because the demand for permits greatly outweighs the number of available city licenses.
“I would hide from the police. I had several arrests for selling food that was not allowed,” said Coyotzi, who said she was fined by the New York City Police Department almost 20 times for selling food without a food vendor license and a permit for her mobile cart. “The food was not allowed because it was considered illegal food.”
New York City’s street vendor policy requires that a mobile food vending unit that is a pushcart or vehicle used to “store, prepare, display, serve or sell food” in “any public, private or restricted space” have a food vendor license and permit.
According to the Street Vendor Project, a group representing a network of more than 2,000 street vendors, a vendor without a permit can be fined up to $1,000 for not having a license or permit.
“That's a lot of money for people because that's something that sometimes, they don’t even make in a month,” said Jennifer Salgado, lead organizer of the Street Vendor Project. “That’s just the reality of things.”
In 2005, Coyotzi tried to apply for a permit but couldn’t because of a cap that limited the number of permits issued by the city.
A year later, she thought she found a solution and paid about $9,000 for a permit, but it turned out to be a fake.
“We had no clue. We did not think that they [people who sell permits in the black market] were going to sell us a mobile cart with a false permit,” she said. “We did not know that this existed.”
That left her with another citation — this time for operating with a false permit. In 2012, she eventually worked with another vendor who had a legal permit and paid $18,000 every two years to use that permit.
Coyotzi said needing to pay rent and raise her son motivated her to keep selling her food despite the risk of NYPD enforcement at the time.
A City Council bill passed in 2021 aimed to eliminate the underground trade by issuing 445 permits annually for the next 10 years starting July 11, 2022. Priority is given to people who had their names on the waiting list before March 1, 2017, and those who already own a license, according to the city.
The city Department of Sanitation in April took over the enforcement of street vendor rules.
The Street Vendor Project said more needs to be done for vendors who are not on the waitlist and excluded from obtaining a permit.
“It’s still a really difficult system to maneuver. Many people want to sell food on the streets. It’s usually the first step before opening up a formal restaurant,” Salgado said. “But, because of the lack of licensing and permits, they simply cannot.”
In March, the group rallied to call on the City Council to implement the “Street Vendor Reform Platform.” The platform includes four changes that would benefit street vendors: removing the cap on permits and licenses, repealing the criminal liability of thousands of vendors, creating an educational center within NYC Small Business Services, and opening more vending locations.
“There’s been an existing cap for over 30 years, and so we know that it’s time to change that,” Salgado said.
In a statement, the city Health Department said they “maintain the waitlists for food vending,” and added that they have “issued 200 new supervisory license applications out of 445 authorized annually with the new mobile food vending law.”
“The remaining 245 applications for the year will be released by [the] end of June. A vendor with this license may apply for a supervisory license permit at any time,” the statement read.
Council member Pierina Sanchez, who represents the neighborhoods of Kingsbridge, Fordham, University Heights, Mount Eden and Mount Hope, is a daughter of street vendors. Sanchez said she is backing legislation to end the criminalization of street vendors and increase the limit on permits.
“I know firsthand they live and work in our neighborhoods, and have high hopes for their own economic futures,” Sanchez said in a statement. “It is critical for the City to chart a path forward that supports our smallest businesses in harmony with neighborhoods, instead of repressing them as inconveniences.
“That’s why I am closely working with the Street Vendor Project to reimagine a vending system that focuses on expanding our smallest businesses, uplifting the New York City economy, and reframing how the city handles its street vendors,” she said.
Despite the challenges Coyotzi has faced throughout the years as a street vendor, she is proud of the work she put in to open her restaurant, which she manages with her husband and son.
She said opening up her restaurant was not an easy task. She took out a lease for the storefront in Jan. 2020, but had to delay the opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She officially opened her restaurant in March 2022.
“I honestly feel very proud and feel grateful for the support of family. I feel like this [restaurant] has been a success. I never gave up,” Coyotzi said. “Sometimes I don’t even believe it.”
At the eatery, located on Northern Boulevard in Corona, she offers a selection of dishes from her native Mexico and employs a staff of mostly women.
“It feels really good that someone like her motivates you. It makes me realize that if she could do it, maybe I can as well in the future,” said Blanca Flores, an employee of the restaurant.