Top image: Ming Qian, owner of Ming's Things, cooks up Chinese interpretations of classic American and European dishes at the Pearl Farmers Market in May 2013. Photo by Page Graham.

Local food vendors, growers and producers are signing petitions, and farmers market managers are calling for meetings with City officials this week over permitting fees imposed at area farmers markets.

While the fees are not new, one paid to the San Antonio Fire Department recently went up from $30 to $35 through an increase in October 2015. Officials have only recently started enforcing the fee at increasingly popular farmers markets.

City and health advocates strive to reduce epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes with campaigns of various success, but one strategy most agree on is access to locally grown and prepared fresh foods. The various farmers markets are touted by officials as true assets to this tactic, but many vendors say the fees cut far too deep into their already slim profit margins.

The City’s Fire Department and Metropolitan Health Department fees, which vendors of all sizes pay per day no matter the scale of the event, were designed many years ago for food trucks and vendors at special events, before the recurring farmers markets were established.

While the Fire Department fee affects only those vendors preparing food on-site at farmers markets, the Metro Health fee addresses the food safety at “temporary food service establishments,” which includes all farmers market booths.

Fees Add Up for Farmers Market Vendors

The Fire Department charges $35 for each market day plus a $1.05 technology fee if paid ahead of time through a visit to a city administration building, or $45 (which includes the technology fee) if paid the day of the market. The fee has been in place for the past 30 years, originally designed for vendors preparing food for several days during one-time

festivals or annual events like Fiesta.

One year of prepaid, once-a-week SAFD fees totals $1,874.60. Day-of fees would total $2,340.

The Metro Health Department fee for food booths consists of a permit fee of $30.90 per booth, per day if paid at least three days before the event. Fees paid less than three days before the event will be $36.05 per booth, per day.

That works out to another $1,606.80 prepaid and $1,874.60 day-of fees per year.

These numbers are only for vendors that sell food once a week. The Pearl Farmers Market is open two days a week and there are several other markets in town on various days. Farmers, chefs, and other food producers routinely take advantage of more than one farmers market in a given week, so fees can quickly double or triple.

Pearl Farmers Market, May 17, 2013. Photo by Page Graham.
A vendor shares samples of wine during the Pearl Farmers Market on May 17, 2013. Photo by Page Graham.

“Some vendors are paying more in fees than a typical restaurant and vendors are open less days and fewer hours and make much less revenue,” said Pearl Farmers Market Manager Nancy Fitch.

For Silvia Alcaraz, owner of Cocina Heritage and a vendor at multiple farmer markets, the numbers just don’t add up.

“Just to sell at one market one day, I would have to pay the fire department fee plus a $30 stall fee and the health department fee for each market — that’s almost $80 just in fees for one market day,” she said. “My booth requires two people to staff it, so I pay $100 in labor. That’s about $180 per (booth, per) market day and I’m a vendor at multiple markets.

“I’ve never made $800-1,000 in a week — and that’s what I would need to do in sales in order to make some profit,” Alcaraz added. “That doesn’t even take into account my food costs, insurance and other business costs.”

People’s Nite Market at La Villita co-organizers Valeria Hernandez and Jovanna Lopez said the permit fee structure was not designed for farmers markets.

“When we started looking into this issue, we found that there’s no category of City code that applies to farmers markets in San Antonio ordinances,” Hernandez said. “So this Fire Department inspection fee that’s been in existence for 30 years just doesn’t apply to us.”

Cherinet Girma, owner of Berbere Ethiopian Cuisine, prepares a plate of Ethiopian food. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Cherinet Girma, owner of Berbere Ethiopian Cuisine, prepares a plate of Ethiopian food at the People’s Nite Market. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

But, technically, the City’s ordinance does apply to farmers markets, said SAFD Public Relations Manager Woody Woodward.

“There’s been some confusion over the fire inspection fee and whether it applies to food vendors at farmers markets,” he said. “The Fire Department inspects a restaurant’s or food truck’s setup to make sure it’s safe, and that setup rarely changes. The issue with food vendor stalls at the farmers markets is that vendors often change their setup when they move their stalls from market day to market day, and set up at different market locations.”

It is that constant setting up and rearranging of booths at farmers markets that introduces possible hazards.

“For example, a vendor (cooking with propane gas) can normally set up next to a parking lot one market day, then because of construction at the Pearl, inadvertently be moved to set up next to a populated building, which can pose a potential hazard,” Woodward said. “Our goal is to work out a reasonable solution and make sure the public is safe.

“Fire Chief (Charles) Hood is open and wants to work toward a solution, it’s a priority that we resolve this issue,” he added.

As for health department inspection fees, Fitch said she has been working with Metro Health. Paying fees for each market day didn’t make sense for food vendors at farmers markets, she said.

Metro Health allowed vendors at the Pearl to pay a weekly fee based on a “one market day, per week” basis, but once the Pearl Farmers Market expanded to both Saturday and Sunday, that rule no longer applied. Metro Health then adopted a monthly payment schedule in February to allow food vendors to pay fees on a monthly basis, but the amount remained the same.

“It is in our best interest for our Health Department to enforce the rules and maintain food safety,” Fitch said. “We’ve been working with Metro Health and they’re adapting along with us as they learn about the realities of growing farmers markets in San Antonio.”

Collaboration is Key

Adding new markets and encouraging the growth of new small food producers has revealed how existing ordinances and fees could benefit from a collaborative review.

Chef Stephen Paprocki, owner of Texas Black Gold Garlic, calls for ordinances to be developed specifically for vendors selling at farmers markets.

“I sell at eight different markets a week at different locations, so making these fees a per-location, per-event fee treats farmers markets as a special event,” Paprocki said. “The ordinance needs to be targeted for farmers markets, not for a single event.”

As an organizer for the People’s Nite Market, Lopez stressed the need to collaborate and support the growing availability of healthy food at farmers markets and the small-business owners who sell that food.

“When we spoke to the Metro Health Department, we pointed out that other cities have adapted types of permits for farmers markets and that we were willing to work together as partners,” she said.

Multiple parties are involved in ongoing dialogue with both the SAFD and Metro Health. Food vendors expect to discuss the Health Department’s fee during a possible meeting on Thursday. More meetings with the SAFD to discuss fire safety inspection fees are forthcoming.

UPDATE: Metro Health spokesperson Carol Schliesinger said during an interview on Wednesday afternoon that Metro Health interim Director Vincent Nathan was unaware of any meeting or ongoing discussions with vendors. “We are not changing our fees,” Schliesinger said.

The Food Policy Council of San Antonio has also been working on food policy issues and is involved in discussions with City officials. The Food Policy Council’s goal is to address issues in the community that relate to healthy food availability.

San Antonio Food Bank volunteers Jessica Robbins and Maria Zamudio prepare their vegetable stand at the Main Plaza Farmers Market. Photo by Joan Vinson.
San Antonio Food Bank volunteers Jessica Robbins and Maria Zamudio prepare their vegetable stand at the Main Plaza Farmers Market in March 2015. Photo by Joan Vinson.

“San Antonio is growing very fast,” said Len Trevino, Food Policy Council president. “A lot of these issues have been addressed and are well managed in other large cities, so we need to look at what works in other communities to understand their policies and try to incorporate their lessons learned for our city.”

Vendors are eager for a solution, and soon. If veteran chefs like Michael Sohocki, owner of Restaurant Gwendolyn and Kimura, have experienced difficulties as farmers market vendors, imagine the challenges for a new small-scale food producer just starting.

(Read more: Sohocki: My Short Life As a Pearl Farmers Market Vendor, and note that it was not necessarily the fees that caused Sohocki to flee.)

“I would like to see all parties come to an agreement sooner rather than later, a solution that is workable for all involved,” said Luis Morales, chef and owner of Humble House. “The Fire Department inspector was professional and respectful and I paid the fee on the spot” on Saturday, when the ordinance was enforced at the Pearl.

Other vendors are looking for ways to express their viewpoints, either in meetings or on paper.

“I started a petition back in January that many of the vendors have signed,” Alcaraz said. “(In our petition) we’re asking for $200 a year for a health department fee and $150 for fire department fee for the business on an annual basis, rather than on a per-event basis.”

Many vendors agree with Trevino’s approach.

“I feel confident that the right people will get together and produce good policies to not only put the fire and health departments at ease, but to help our food producers survive,” Trevino said. “A collaborative approach will be the best way to increase the availability of affordable healthy food and grow a vibrant economy in our community.

“We don’t want barriers to good, healthy food,” he said.

CORRECTION: After a conversation with Metro Health, the headline of this article was updated to reflect that the City department is not considering any changes to its current inspections fee for farmers market vendors. 

Top image: Ming Qian, co-owner of Ming’s Things, cooks up Chinese interpretations of classic American and European dishes at the Pearl Farmers Market in May 2013. Photo by Page Graham.

Related Stories:

Sohocki: My Short Life as a Pearl Farmers Market Vendor

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Pearl Adding Sunday Farmers Market

Pearl Farmers Market Celebrates Five Successful Years

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.