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Street-Food Fight

from the magazine

Street-Food Fight

Vendors jostle to feed hungry New Yorkers, but many residents and businesses object. Here’s a plan for peace. Summer 2015
Arts and Culture

Gotham’s food carts and food trucks, offering everything from humble hot dogs to Pondicherry masala, show how the city’s government works—or doesn’t. New York regulates selling food on the street through a complex array of city and state rules. Yet the rules make no one happy—not the street-food vendors and not the people living and working near them. A few easy, incremental fixes would make life better for everyone.

New Yorkers started selling food from city streets and curbs long ago. “New Yorkers love to eat, and they love to eat fast,” said Danielle Linzer, cocurator of a 2012 New York Public Library exhibit on the history of New York lunches, in an exhibit podcast. “In the 1800s,” she notes, “in the days before health and sanitation codes, pushcarts were an extremely common sight on New York City streets.” Vendors sold “anything and everything” to New Yorkers who were in a hurry. Operating a vending cart—which, back then, often meant hawking “oysters for sale” for six cents—has always been a way for outsiders to get ahead. “The most famous and successful oyster seller in the city” in 1825 was Robert Downing, a free black, Linzer says.

By the turn of the century, New York’s oyster beds were depleted, but the pushcart sellers persisted. In 1895, so many carts crowded the Lower East Side that a group of young street cleaners showed up at the New York Times to demand change, on quality-of-life grounds. “Pushcarts are hired out by the day for a very trifling sum of money, and without license,” the boys, 13 to 15 years old, grumbled. “Pushcarts contain all sorts of decayed fruits and vegetables,” causing dangerous odors and dirty streets. The boys demanded a licensing system, a “proper place” for vendors, and police enforcement. Four years later, the street cleaners got their licensing system, with peddlers paying $4 a year per pushcart. Five thousand peddlers sold their wares under the new regime, but disputes continued.

As the century turned, ethnic turf wars flared. “Greek asked Greek if it were possible that their supremacy in the pushcart business” downtown “was to be wrested by Chinamen,” reported the Times. Pushcart owners and workers fell victim to political and police extortion. In 1903, the Times began calling for an outright ban. Pushcarts were a “nuisance,” the paper said, kept around only by “sentiment” at the expense of free traffic flow. “It would be impossible to contend that any public good is served by pushcart peddling.” New York’s health commissioner opined that if the city got rid of pushcarts, it could rid itself of Greek, Italian, and Chinese immigrants, too—a good thing, in his view—as they would have no work.

But the pushcarts had numbers and passion on their side. In the modern era, they withstood Mayor John Lindsay’s late-1960s effort to limit the sale of hot dogs and ice cream to ten minutes on any one corner. They survived Mayor Ed Koch’s early-1980s attempt to ban street-cart selling from downtown. And they resisted Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s late-1990s push (again) to ban the carts from downtown, as well as from midtown. Thousands of protesting vendors forced the mayor to back down. Mayor Bloomberg’s only move in this area was to help the vendors, by approving special “green-cart” permits for stands selling fruits and vegetables.

The rules governing vendors today are the product of more than a century’s worth of back-and-forth between city government and food businesses. Since the Koch era, the city has restricted food-vending licenses to 2,800, plus 1,000 seasonal permits for ice-cream trucks and other summer food, 1,000 green-cart permits, and separate permits for veterans and disabled people. (Before the cap, peddlers had taken out 5,036 normal permits and 414 seasonal ones.) Since Giuliani started enforcing a Koch-era law, the city has restricted vendors from some of the city’s most congested streets, including Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, where they can’t operate until the evening, if at all, depending on the block. Vendors are supposed to steer clear of crosswalks, fire hydrants, bus stops, building entrances, and the like, and they can’t store their food on the sidewalk. Cart workers must complete an eight-hour class to get a personal-vending license, and if you want to sell “frozen desserts,” you need a “frozen-dessert permit,” too. And vendors are supposed to bring their carts to a commissary every night for scrubbing. Food trucks must adhere to all the same rules, and metered parking spaces are off limits.

The customers are out there, as they’ve always been. On a recent summer weekday, The Halal Guys had five workers running two carts on Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street—and 37 people waiting in line. “We came around the corner and saw the line,” said Areski Baehl, visiting from France with his wife, Florence. Their mixed gyro chicken “was good,” the couple agreed. “We only needed one. It is enough for two persons,” said Areski. Nearby, Chinese tourists, construction workers from Queens, and a Muslim family sat on ledges and tucked into their rice and chicken, slathered in white sauce.

Except for the customers, though, nobody seems very happy. The biggest aggravation for street vendors is the city’s restrictive licensing system, which, much like its licensing of taxi medallions, favors people who got there first over those trying to make a living today. Like medallion licensing, too, the city’s system favors capital over labor. “I’m not talking to you about the permits,” said one permit owner I talked with, “but I am very lucky.”

Just as Greek, Italian, and Chinese immigrants sold gyros and ice cream a century ago, Egyptian, Bangladeshi, Mexican, Ecuadorean, Afghan, and (still) Chinese newcomers sell falafel and hot dogs today, says Sean Basinski, who directs the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, a membership organization representing more than 1,000 New York vendors. Vending is hard work in all weather, and if you don’t sell enough food, “you may not make anything at all that day,” he observes.

A vending-cart license costs just $200 for two years—but you can’t get one at that price. Applicants who want to run a food cart or a food truck must wait years to obtain one of the city’s 2,800 cart permits. Because of the limited supply and intense demand, an illegal black market has arisen. It costs $15,000 to $25,000 to “lease” a permit from the legal permit holder. An estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of official permit holders—often former vendors themselves who keep renewing their permits—utilize permits in this manner. Just as a taxi driver must cough up much of his take-home cash to pay the owner of his cab’s million-dollar medallion, street vendors must fork over $30 to $40 of their daily pay—not an insignificant amount when a vendor in a marginal area may make only $100 a day. Basinski would just get rid of the cap altogether. “We don’t want vendors working for other people at all,” he argues. “You’re paying someone $25,000 in a dark alley. Whoever wants to do it should be able to do it in their own name legally.” Basinski adds: “We need to get the right to work.”

Vendors should also be able to work in more places, Basinski maintains. Sounding a bit like Dr. Seuss, he says that the city’s complex rules boil down to: “You can’t vend here, you can’t vend there.” Jack Rahmey, who runs the Pocketful Pita food cart on 50th Street, concurs. “Pressure by powerful real-estate interests,” he claims, has cut off many of the most desirable areas.

Vendors find themselves buried under tickets, too—19,924 last year—for offenses ranging from failing to keep food hot to parking too close to a sidewalk. Penalties can hit $385 per violation. The number doesn’t include parking tickets for food trucks, which, unlike food carts, park in the street, not on the sidewalk.

Food-cart workers face intense competition from other vendors for the best locations. Nearly a decade ago, Dan Rossi, a disabled Vietnam veteran, hit upon a business model: get a veteran’s vending license and sell hot dogs outside the Metropolitan Museum. Unfortunately, he was too successful; other vendors soon joined him. If you visited the Met in late spring, you’d have found 20 to 30 carts bordering its steps at any one time, violating location laws. (A recent police crackdown has reduced the carts to about half a dozen, but without constant enforcement, they’ll be back.) Rossi used to sell $2,500 in hot dogs, soda, and other food from one cart in a day; today, he sells $750 a day with two carts, one run by his daughter, also a veteran.

Most people don’t understand how much work goes into running a food truck or cart, says Brian Hoffman, a writer for the nine-year-old Midtown Lunch blog. The customer buying a steak doesn’t think, “this person has three carts and one van. He has to go back to Queens three times” each morning to bring his carts in. Hoffman, who also takes tourists and locals on food-cart tours, says that customers are “also surprised at all the regulations.” It’s a little shocking, he says, to discover that it can take 18 hours of work daily to operate a truck that serves lunch for just a few hours.

Photographs by Harvey Wang (2)
As many as 30 food carts sometimes congregated outside the Metropolitan Museum, until the city reduced their numbers.

Food-truck operators have even greater difficulties than food-cart vendors do with regulatory burdens and intense competition. When they came on the scene a decade ago, food trucks filled a need. Traditional food carts offered monotonous (and usually unhealthy) fare—primarily hot dogs and sausages, grilled lamb, and doughnuts—while New York brick-and-mortar real estate was becoming so expensive that downtown and midtown office workers found themselves priced out of many restaurants. Today, thanks to 100 or so food trucks in the city, office workers and tourists have more options. During a late-spring weekday lunch hour, bankers and lawyers lined up 20 deep on the side streets along midtown’s Park Avenue to wait their turn to buy “traditional Greek food” from Uncle Gussy’s; chicken, lamb, or a “salmon special” from Rafiqi’s; or Korean barbecue from Bob & Jo.

But, being latecomers to the street-food industry, truck entrepreneurs have a tough time securing permits, and making ends meet isn’t easy. Thomas DeGeest, a Belgian native and refugee from a white-collar IBM job, used a food truck to start a successful business with less capital and risk than he would have needed for a comparable brick-and-mortar eatery. His Wafels & Dinges launched eight years ago as the city’s “first nontraditional gourmet” food truck, at a time when “the city’s food-truck explosion hadn’t quite happened,” he says. Now, he runs two trucks, five carts, two in-park kiosks, and one old-fashioned café in New York, with 60 employees. DeGeest has moved away from the food-truck model, however. Finding a place to park was nearly impossible, and he paid $12,000 in tickets yearly. Once food trucks proliferated, “respect for established patterns got lost,” he says. Vendors would park at 2 AM to save their spaces for the next day. “It became so crowded, I’d basically given up,” DeGeest says. “The trucks will eventually go away,” predicts Pocketful Pita’s Rahmey, because “it is just too hard.” Dennis Kum, who runs Big D’s Grub truck near Rahmey’s cart, says that his midtown food truck only breaks even. He makes his real money catering special events.

Even if food trucks do vanish, they’ll leave a legacy of forcing food-cart permit owners to improve their offerings. Ten years ago, in midtown, you’d be lucky to find a sanitary hot dog. In midtown on a recent lunch hour, office workers could choose from Steak Freak’s “modern Asian fusion” to Tuk Tuk Boy’s vegetable rolls and chicken spring noodles to Hyderabad Goat Kaachi Biryani’s “halal Indian gourmet cuisine.” Rahmey notes that before the food trucks, few vendors branded their food carts. Now, cart owners see the value in marketing their own distinct style.

But if you live or work in the city and you’re not a street-food vendor or a committed customer, the last thing you’ll likely want is more vendors. Residents and businesses are fed up with what they see as a lack of adequate regulation of the industry. In their apartments and in their shops, or as they walk the streets, they bear the costs of these businesses, without reaping the benefits.

Michele Birnbaum, a longtime Upper East Sider, has been thinking about vending issues for two decades. The cochair of the vendor task force for her neighborhood’s community board—an arm of local government—Birnbaum catalogs the problems that she and her neighbors endure. Chief among them: smell, smoke, and sanitation. “This is a major quality-of-life issue,” she says. Peter Koo, the city councilman who represents Flushing, Queens, agrees. Apartment dwellers and small-business owners along Main Street in the neighborhood “aren’t happy,” he says, because “they have to smell barbecue smoke 365 days” a year. One vendor at a traditional Chinese barbecue cart wore a face mask on a recent hot day.

Vending carts rely on gas and propane generators—equipment designed for emergencies like power outages, not for constant use near residents, workers, and pedestrians. Food-cart generators don’t even have catalytic converters, a decades-old technology used in cars and trucks that reduces toxic pollutants. Charcoal, another food-cart staple, is hardly a clean-burning fuel for a congested city street. Cart emissions contribute to ozone and smog, an acute problem on hot, humid days. With New York having reduced the number of automobiles coming into Manhattan, tightened rules on home-heating oils, and encouraged building owners to reduce power usage, its seeming indifference to street vendors burning through charcoal and propane daily is striking.

Further, brick-and-mortar New York businesses contend that they compete against vendors on an unfair playing field. A traditional restaurant endures a long permitting process and pays the city thousands of dollars to operate a sidewalk café, says Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants. A vendor, by contrast, can set his cart up outside the same location and sell the same kind of food for a lower price. DeGeest of Wafels & Dinges, a street vendor himself, is frustrated that shortly after getting approval for, and opening, his Bryant Park kiosk, he watched as a street-side vendor set up just a few feet away, unmolested by the police despite being too close to the crosswalk.

Further, restaurants must comply with an array of rules governing emissions, food safety, and labor, none of which apply to vending carts. And restaurants can’t even follow an “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy. “Many restaurants would love to have a [food] truck as well, but because of the way the system is set up, they can’t get a permit,” explains Rigie.

New York residents and businesses also complain about the city’s failure to enforce its (inadequate) laws regulating street vending. “Without enforcement, it’s all meaningless,” says Birnbaum. Koo recalls that 30 years ago, when he started a pharmacy in Flushing, vendors would run if they saw the police coming. “Now, they don’t care,” he observes. Common, well-documented complaints include vendors who park their inventory-support trucks in one location all day and sometimes all night; vendors who park too close to sidewalks, crosswalks, and building entrances; and vendors who dump their grease and trash on the streets instead of taking it back to their commissaries, as they’re supposed to do. Just walk up Fifth Avenue on a weekend, and you’ll see an ice-cream truck illegally blocking the crosswalk at nearly every intersection.

One challenge with enforcement of vending rules is potential confusion. Police officers are largely responsible for writing tickets, but they may not be up to speed on the intricacies of vending laws written by the state and city and then interpreted by the health department and the consumer-affairs department. It’s thus easy for vendors to get their tickets thrown out: Rossi says that of 350 tickets he received last year, he got all but two invalidated in court. Of last year’s 19,924 ticketed offenses, a court dismissed 5,266, or more than a quarter. A second challenge is manpower. The NYPD has a peddling squad only in Manhattan. And when officers do write legitimate tickets, vendors often don’t pay.

The world of street vending needs reform, but let’s be clear about what New York doesn’t want: antiseptic streets. Boston largely bans vending from its downtown, but at the cost of urban vitality, contributing to the city’s reputation for being unfriendly to pedestrians. European cities are strict with vendors, too, but they also muzzle any economic opportunity that might allow recent immigrants to make a living. And let’s also not favor the gourmet, $10 barbecue branded cart over the old-fashioned halal guy, with faded pictures of his offerings on his cart and his holiday lights strung up at Christmas—the rules should be fair to each.

The first step to a better vending system is rational, predictable enforcement of existing laws. If a food vendor is too close to a crosswalk or he’s leaving his garbage behind every night, the city should stop him. Birnbaum would like to see a separate vendor-enforcement squad. Rather than having highly skilled police officers write tickets, civilian city workers trained in vending law could do this task. The tickets they write would go into a database, so that the squad could learn which tickets were successful and which got thrown out in court.

The goal should not be to make money by playing gotcha with vendors, but to shut down bad behavior. The squad would patrol the parts of the city with the most vendors to ensure that they comply with the laws. Cart permits should have a GPS on them, so that enforcement officers know that a permit is real, not counterfeit; if it is in one place, it can’t be somewhere else. And veterans should have to adhere to all the vending rules; the city and state have long been inconsistent on this point.

A second step would be to encourage the adoption of cleaner cart technology. MOVE Systems, a Queens-based firm, is pioneering vending carts that run on solar power and natural gas, combined with a battery. The company’s commissioned research found that replacing one cart with a MOVE cart is the equivalent of taking 186 cars off New York’s streets every year. MOVE’s carts also feature sinks and refrigerators, which traditional vending carts lack. And customers can pay by credit card. The company is working with veteran vendors to test-drive carts at some key vending points in New York this summer, including in front of the American Museum of Natural History, on the West Side. Al Peacock, a military veteran who, on a good day, sells halal food from that spot to 400 customers, says that the cart is “like having a new car” on test runs. That the cart is “not as noisy” and offers “better ventilation” is not only good for him but also good for nearby businesses and residents. “So many people have asthma, me included,” he says. And, learning from food-truck vendors and restaurants, Peacock is branding the fresh cart. “I want people to remember, you know, you got that food there . . . like Shake Shack,” he explains. To begin pushing street-food vending in a cleaner direction, the city could sell 500 new permits above the current cap, say, but only to vendors with low-emissions carts. Over the next few years, as technology improves, the city could impose and then tighten requirements on cart emissions, gradually phasing out generators and charcoal. Whether the technology cuts vending costs or increases them—MOVE says that costs will go down with more efficient energy—vendors and their customers should bear the expense, not passersby and residents.

A third reform would be to ensure that vendors operate on a fairer playing field relative to stationary eateries. To that end, the city should inspect vending carts and their commissaries for food safety, assigning the same letter grades that it gives to restaurants. (Many vendors actually want such a system.) And when a vendor sells food similar to that offered by a nearby restaurant, the latter should have the right to set up a cart and sell its own food outside, too.

As for what to do about the expensive black market in permits and about where, exactly, vendors can operate, we should be realistic. New York has had a black market in vending since the Tammany Hall days. When street space is valuable, people will find a way to price it. And if we eliminated the black market by ending the permit requirement, we’d have so many vendors that we couldn’t walk. Still, the city could give newcomers a fairer chance by making sure, through enforcement, that the person who holds the permit for a food-vending cart is actively involved in the business. If such enforcement proved impractical, the city could stop automatically renewing permits, giving all vendors, new and old, the same chance to obtain permits every time they’re offered. The city could also reduce the time it takes for cart workers to get food-safety permits, from as long as two months, as is the case currently, to a week or two. Kum, of Big D’s Grub, says that he pays his three workers $20 an hour because “they know I need them”; it’s hard to find a worker with a food-preparation license.

With better rules—and better-enforced rules—New Yorkers doubtless would be amenable to raising the cap on vendors, allowing more people to sell in more places on the streets. There’s no good reason that Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue shouldn’t have vending during the day, for example; in fact, having vendors on these high-priced streets would give property owners there a stake in ensuring that a new system works.

With New York rethinking in general who gets to use its streets rather than simply giving them over to automobile and truck traffic, vendors might find more space on the streets rather than on the sidewalks. Already, Madison Square Plaza and Herald Square Plaza have taken space away from traffic and given it to food vendors. If Gotham’s new philosophy is to favor pedestrians over cars and trucks, the city can also favor the people who serve those pedestrians their lunch.

Top Photo: Thomas DeGeest started a food-truck business eight years ago that has expanded into a mini-empire—including kiosks and an old-fashioned café—employing 60 people.

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