On a cool Tuesday morning, Elizabeth Alcarraz ambled around boxes of strawberries in the narrow aisles of her brightly lit fruit store squeezed into an aging West Carson strip mall.
Behind one glass shelf were freshly sheared watermelons and cucumbers, with rows of tamarind candy vibrantly packaged above. It was about a half hour before Noemi’s Fruits opened at 8 a.m., but she had already flipped over the paper “open” sign now that her prep work was done.
The shop, named for her youngest daughter, is crammed full of other goodies too — juices and smoothies, elotes (Mexican grilled street corn) and tamales (mostly on weekends), as well as snacks Alcarraz has adapted and created herself.
One of her popular drinks is the Mexican treat chamango. Her version, a blend of mango and ice, is drizzled with sweet and savory chamoy sauce, loaded with chunks of mango and includes a few ingredients she wants to keep secret.
If you had asked the petite yet self-assured Peruvian immigrant years ago if she believed she would have her own business, she would have said “Absolutely!” — despite her long history in lower-wage jobs.
She spent nearly 20 years at McDonald’s, doing just about every task, from cleaning tables to being an assistant manager. And then there were several dreary years as a gas station manager.
But after decades of working for others, four years ago she decided to strike out on her own and open a sidewalk cart selling fruit — and just two years later she opened her shop across the street.
Today, the 56-year-old still likes to celebrate the freedom that comes with being your own boss.
“They won’t tell me ‘you can’t’ or ‘you can.’ I will do whatever I want in there and they will not say anything to me,” she said in Spanish. “I will dance there, I will spin around, and nobody will bother me.”
With an estimated 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles alone, the struggles that the typically immigrant entrepreneurs face have long drawn notice, recently prompting state legislation that allows municipalities to regulate the businesses but prevents local regulations from barring or criminalizing them.
There’s been less attention, though, to the challenges vendors face making the transition from selling on the street to having their own store, at least partly because it’s not necessarily an ambition of most cart owners — and few manage to do it.
But small businesses were familiar territory to Alcarraz, who grew up helping out at her parents’ grocery store in Lima.
It was in the shop, she said, where her working-class parents taught her and her two sisters life lessons they still draw on today: Always work hard for your future.
“Everything you do, do it better,” her father would say.
Her parents toiled to maintain the store started by her grandparents, and everyone in the family helped. When she was 11, Alcarraz spent weekends and summers ringing up items.
Thirty years ago, she came to the U.S. after her husband, Leopoldo, lost his job assembling cars in Lima and decided to try to find work in the States.
He arrived first, landing in California, and Alcarraz soon followed. Their two kids, Daniel and Ysabel, came later as teenagers after the couple was settled.
Just like her family in Lima, Alcarraz wanted to start a business, but her dream would have to wait. She realized it was much harder to open a shop here than in Peru.
Instead, she found work at a McDonald’s in Gardena, where she cleaned tables and made the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. She later learned how to prep food in the kitchen, work the cash register and handle customers at the fast-paced drive-through window. She became interested in learning the management side of the business and agreed to take classes, eventually learning to fill out the restaurant’s paperwork.
Alcarraz rose through the ranks to become an assistant manager but found it difficult to spend time with her children because of the irregular hours. Her husband, who worked at a petroleum company, would get frustrated because it was hard for the family to be together on weekends.
When she had her third child, Elizabeth Noemi, in 1998, the balancing act became harder. “There came a time when I said, you know what, I can’t work anymore,” she said. “I had to leave.”
She later worked at a Chevron gas station in Inglewood, where her duties as a manager included cleaning up, customer service and ordering products. But she grew tired of the job, where she was mostly on her own, and left after a few years.
One day, Alcarraz spotted a man under a rainbow umbrella selling chopped fruit in downtown Los Angeles. She asked him about his work, and he assured her she could do it as well, if she wanted. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Me? But how?”
He explained the process of getting certified and where to buy a cart. She returned home excitedly to tell her husband, who had retired and was wary of the idea, but she persisted.
She invested about $3,000 in a food cart and became a licensed vendor in 2015. It was scary at first. She was unfamiliar with the stringent street vending regulations and was warned there were restrictions on what she could sell.
Alcarraz was cautious, starting at a farmers market in Long Beach, where she worked just three days a week, but she wanted more.
One day while driving on Vermont Avenue in the community of West Carson, she noticed there was steady foot traffic near Vermont’s intersection with West Carson Street. Out of courtesy, she asked the manager of the nearby Jack in the Box to make sure it was all right if she parked her cart nearby.
With the go-ahead from the manager, she set up shop on Vermont Avenue, near one of the fast-food restaurant’s entrances, across from a carwash.
She remembers her first day. It was a Thursday and she made $20, not even enough to cover the cost of the bags of ice and fruit.
“Well,” she remembers thinking, “tomorrow will be better.”
Alcarraz became a familiar presence to those who worked at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center campus and nearby stores. In the summer, she enlisted her youngest daughter, Noemi, for help during the busy season.
That included prepping the fruit and setting up the cart before the sun rose to what Noemi recalled was her mother’s exacting standards — and waiting long hours in the open air under the shade of two rainbow umbrellas.
On busy days, her daughter said, they would find themselves in the middle of a crowd of 20 people as they scrambled to serve them all. Alcarraz’s husband would drop off more fruit for them and help handle the money.
“Nobody really wants to be out there,” said Noemi, now 21. “It was tiresome to see her do it all over again the next day.”
But she saw how her mother enjoyed the work.
Alcarraz learned how to take suggestions from customers, like stocking better or different fruit. “Once she puts her mind onto something, she’s committed,” said her son Daniel Alcarraz.
That’s what happened when she got the idea to open up her own store.
Her family worried it would be difficult, but she was tired of constantly being questioned by inspectors.
Alcarraz had always held on to her dream of opening a business, said her eldest daughter, Ysabel Alcarraz.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to live all my life working for another company, I want to be my own boss,’” the 37-year-old said.
One day, while eating at the Jack in the Box, Alcarraz spotted an empty storefront across the street in the Village Vermont plaza. The “for lease” sign wasn’t lit but it looked bright, like something was shining on it. She took it as a signal to rent the space.
The storefront had served as an office, and turning it into a juice store was daunting. Alcarraz had to get multiple permits and spend about $13,000 on renovations to meet code requirements. But she got help from her children and friends from Empower Church, which she attends regularly.
On the morning of the last inspection, she and her husband woke up early, got on their knees and prayed that she would pass.
During the inspection, her husband waited outside with the fruit cart. When it was over, she went to tell him the news.
“You won’t believe it,” she began.
“Have we done it?” he asked.
“We’ve done it.”
The L.A. nonprofit research organization Economic Roundtable estimates that street vending, including food and other items, was a $504-million industry in L.A. County in 2015. But it’s not common for many of those immigrant entrepreneurs to try to open their own stores.
Victor Narro, a project director at the UCLA Labor Center, said vendors have an “entrepreneurial spirit” but choose to expand in other ways, such as opening food trucks, which require less capital.
However, if they have more access to resources from local governments, vendors have a better chance of starting a traditional business.
“I just think the opportunity needs to be there,” Narro said.
For Alcarraz, the day finally came in April 2017. She opened her store in Suite 102, between a pharmacy and a Metro PCS storefront, at 21720 S. Vermont Ave. She was stunned by lines out the door, many people who had long patronized her cart.
The store operates seven days a week. She closes early on Fridays so she can make it to church, but she’s hoping to hire someone so she can also attend Sunday services. She has one employee who helps out part time.
Her store’s logo includes a picture of her cart, which sits out by the plaza’s entrance with a sign that lets her longtime customers know she achieved her goal: “Now we are in the new store,” it reads. “We are waiting for you!!”
With her modest prices — the most expensive menu item costs only $12 — she takes in about $150 a day, though in the hot summer that can jump to $400. And while that’s about the same as what she made from her cart, it’s enough to cover rent and bills and leave some left over to invest in her business.
One Tuesday morning, customers drifted in and out, some for the first time and others for a routine stop. Jamaal Waring and his son, Legend, 4, stopped by for a second visit.
Waring, 25, ordered a large container of mixed fruit, a watermelon agua fresca and a Mexican jello cup for his son, who picked it out himself and slurped up as he wandered around the shelves overflowing with candy and chips. Legend pressed up against a glass partition as he watched Alcarraz chop away, in awe.
Waring said the shop was just a short walk away from the family’s Carson home. He doesn’t mind the wait for the food to be prepared — the fresh fruit is worth it.
He shared his watermelon drink with Legend, who savored it in kid-size gulps.
“Can I get my drink back?” Waring asked his son, who cradled it close to his chest.
“No,” the boy declared, tilting his head back to look at his father. “It’s yummy.”