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It seemed like Unity Market, the collection of Mexican and Salvadoran food vendors who’ve set up shop a few days a week in Adams Morgan for three years now, could survive anything—-even the ire of the brick-and-mortar restaurants who felt they were stealing business. It’s all finally coming to an end today, because the city says it was never legal in the first place.
“You can’t sell on a public park,” says Roxana Olivas, director of the Office on Latino Affairs. “I think what happened in a past administration, the rules and regulations were never followed.”
The mayor’s office never issued an order that would have allowed food vending in the park, Olivas said. Not only that, but the vendors weren’t paying sales taxes until recently, and also didn’t have sidewalk vending licenses, since there’s a “moratorium” on vending licenses. The Council would have had to pass emergency legislation to allow the market, which was supposed to have been a two-year pilot program, to continue.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs says it’s not a formal moratorium—-they are just waiting for new vending regulations to be formalized before issuing any more licenses, and haven’t issued any since the mid-2000s. Unity Market was operating under a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Parks and Recreation, which is coming to an end.
The market might have gone on, however, had someone not nearly taken legal action. According to Kristen Barden, director of the Adams Morgan Partnership, real estate agent Pat Patrick—-who spoke out vociferously against the market last year—-hired a lawyer and sent OLA a cease and desist letter, threatening to sue the city.
“I’m glad that OLA has decided to do the right thing, do do what’s legal,” Barden says.
Olivas says she’s worked to help the vendors find a new place to do business, and understands that they’ve secured a parking lot near PanAm supermarket in north Columbia Heights where they could operate under a group vending license, like farmers markets do now. But the city’s no longer footing the bill.
On their last day in the park, vendors were dismayed that they wouldn’t be able to return. Pablo Lacaro, owner of Viva Mexico: Cocina Mexican, says he rents a kitchen to prepare food for the market, has an LLC, pays taxes, and passes inspections.
“I feel bad we support our family for three years with this, the community likes to come here with their family and eat,” he says. “I am a cook, my wife doesn’t work, but I don’t get many orders so I have to do this to support my family. I feel bad the local businesses complain about us that we take away their business, but they have business too.”
He’d like to start a food truck, but doesn’t have the money right now, and will try to make the new location work. “I wanna say thank you to everyone in the community that support, came with their families, they always came, we are going to miss them,” Lacaro says. “We hope to get another place in the city.”
Additional reporting by Odochi Ibe.