In Miami, Food Shopping Can Start in the Parking Lot

You don’t have to visit the butcher counter to find the roast pork loin and Spanish hams that Alberto Ruiz and his father, Minervo, sell every week in Hialeah, Fla. Just look for the open trunk of their sedan.

The men peddle the meats, along with ripe avocados, bagged mandarins and football-size mamey, from a parking spot across the street from a nondescript Cuban bakery.

“Good loin for that bread,” one said in Spanish to a bakery worker rolling out carts of loaves on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

Vendors like the Ruizes can be found in parking lots and along busy roads throughout Miami-Dade County. They turn their open car trunks into makeshift cafeterias or grocery stores, selling produce, tamales, seafood and meats. They shout their sales pitches, lighthearted Spanish rhymes, as they follow shoppers coming and going from the stores.

For some, it’s a side hustle, for others, a full-time job. “I like to sell. I’ve done it all my life,” said Minervo Ruiz, 77, who has been a street vendor with his son here for the past three years. Their pork loin — selling for $80 a piece, or $40 for half — is made by Alberto Ruiz’s father-in-law, who slow-roasts it for hours.

A vendor sells desserts made with guava in Hialeah, Fla., from the trunk of their car, parked in a lot in front of a warehouse frequented by Cubans, who buy clothing to take back to the island.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times
These Cuban tamales made with corn and pork are sold on plates to shoppers on their way to the store.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

The Ruizes, like other vendors, are from rural Cuba; they are familiar with growing, maintaining and selling produce. Other roadside salespeople make meals like tamales from their homes and sell them on the streets, sweating in the humidity as they sit in lawn chairs next to their cars.

Many of these peddlers are unlicensed. In Hialeah, a Cuban American neighborhood, street vendors can get an annual license for $50 to sell items like bottled water, flowers and whole fruit. But for public-health reasons, they aren’t allowed to sell cooked foods or cut fruit, said Jesus Tundidor, a Hialeah City Council member. (He remembers his father buying him churros from a street vendor when he was a child.)

While the number of people selling from their cars is unknown, Mr. Tundidor said it had fallen over the past five years in Hialeah, which has long had an ordinance regulating these street sales. The law is enforced by the police and city inspectors, who respond when they spot vendors or get a complaint. Sellers can face fines of up to $250, but they are mostly given warnings.

Mr. Tundidor is sympathetic to the vendors because his family had to do “whatever they could to make ends meet.” Many, he said, are new immigrants trying to quickly make money while they await government documentation. But he has supported the ordinance, which he said is necessary to regulate what kind of goods are sold on the street. “It’s not the Wild West anymore,” he said.

Across town from the parking spot where the Ruizes set up shop, Juan Carlos Moreno Peña, 52, camped out in front of a warehouse store selling inexpensive clothing. From a folding table in front of his open trunk, he sold slow-roasted pork loin and ham, along with mortadella and chorizo, to Cubans buying clothing to take back to the island. Mr. Moreno Peña has been selling here from Tuesdays to Sundays for about eight months.

There are many vendors who sell goods from their cars in Hialeah, Fla. The open trunks signal to passers-by that the owners have something to sell. Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times

“What am I going to do? I have to work,” he said, declining to say how much he charges for his products, fearful that the police might shut his business down. He wishes he could have a storefront of his own. “Every Cuban’s dream is to succeed and have a proper business,” he said.

Many of these vendors operate alone, but others, like Sabor de Mi Cuba, have a fleet of cars throughout the county that deliver tamales to customers all year. They also sell in parking lots or at businesses that welcome them, like barber shops and nail salons in shopping centers. The owner, Yaimil Castillo, 43, learned how to make tamales in Cuba from his grandparents and his mother. He grinds the corn and flavors it with sazón before cooking them.

He was previously a manager at another tamale shop, Los Mejores Tamales y Más, until the pandemic closed the business. “If I had to sell my own tamales, then I would,” he said.

For Damaris Amador, 55, selling fruits like mandarins, lemons, mangos, limes and papaya from her trunk has given her more flexibility to be with her family. A day at the parking lot of a Walmart in Miami can make her about $200.

She started a decade ago when she saw a vendor hawking avocados at a church near her home for 50 cents apiece. She bought them all, put them in her trunk and sold them for a higher price.

“You work for yourself, you have no boss, no set hours,” she said. “But the job is a sacrifice. Those who want to do it can. I live off this.”

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