Sales for Fresh XRO Bar, which has been selling freshly made, authentic churros at the Old Town Newhall Farmers Market for nearly three years, have not been the same since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down businesses.
While many businesses that sell food have been able to bring back many of their services, it hasn’t been the case for Fresh XRO and other vendors at the farmers market, according to Nathan Santillana, owner of the churro business.
“Our whole thing is about freshness, preparing the dough and making the churros — but because we can’t prepare them any more there, we now prepare them at a commercial kitchen and have them delivered,” he said. “It’s an extra expense when we’re seeing decreased sales because even our regulars aren’t coming anymore.”
Los Angeles County Public Health guidelines indicate that farmers market vendors cannot prepare nor sample food onsite, and only sell prepackaged foods, as well as limit the sale of whole uncut produce and prepackaged items. Customers and vendors must also wear face masks, practice physical distance and maintain booths sanitized.
The frustrating part, said Santillana, is that others, such as indoor markets, can prepare and sell food on site.
“You see that restaurants are able to open their patios and have people sit and eat, and markets prepare food, and we’re outdoors and we’re capable of doing so safely because our main priority is our customers’ health,” he said.
When contacted Friday, Public Health officials said farmers markets are treated differently than street vendors and restaurants because street vendors tend to draw fewer customers.
“Farmers markets tend to bring in much larger crowds, with individuals walking around throughout the venue,” read a statement from officials via email. “While the sale of whole, uncut produce and prepackaged food items is permitted, prepared food sales are not because individuals tend to buy their food and then eat it while walking around the farmers market — doing so without a face covering.”
Under county rules, several vendors at the Old Town Newhall farmers market have had to halt sales for months, according to manager Larry McClements.
“We had to kick out our fresh bread guy, fish and our yogurt person. We had a truck loaded with bread turn around because they couldn’t come when the supermarket shelves were bare early on in the pandemic” he said. “We’re an essential business.”
The city of Santa Clarita and county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, are advocating for less restrictive protocols to allow vendors to sell, according to officials.
“With how diligent and successful our community has been in listening to both the State and Los Angeles County Health Orders for several months, I recognize how defeating and disappointing the strict Public Health Orders continue to be for you and your food vendors,” said City Manager Ken Striplin in an Oct. 2 letter to McClements, who urged him to reach out to the Board of Supervisors.
“Our office continues to implore the state to loosen some of the regulations and restrictions,” said Barger spokeswoman Michelle Vega, in an email Friday.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes farmers markets as essential businesses, the county handles farmers market vendors as community events because they operate with community event permits.
With the support of other farmers markets and vendors in L.A. County, McClements said he is asking that food preparation be allowed to resume “immediately,” by allowing vendors to package the food to go, as well as post signs notifying customers that food cannot be consumed onsite.
“This isn’t just affecting us here in Santa Clarita, it’s affecting others in the county,” he said, “even markets that serve ‘food deserts’ where healthy food isn’t accessible.”