Although a convenience for hungry pedestrians, street food vendors on the Upper West Side have been drawing fire lately. A flood of complaints from residents and local businesses, as well as a city investigation into the illegal trade of food vending permits, has sparked discussions about increased regulation. Critics are particularly concerned about maintaining health and safety standards among vendors who illegally obtained permits to operate their businesses.
On July 1, Council Member Gale Brewer sent a letter to Rose Gil Hearn, commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigation, asking about the different permits required for truck versus cart vendors, and how the city is regulating health and safety issues among vendors.
At press time, Brewer had not yet received a response, but a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that while trucks and carts are indeed subject to the same sanitary requirements for food safety, trucks are additionally subject to all vehicle and traffic regulations.
Brewer said her inquiry was prompted by a marked increase in the number of food vending trucks operating on the Upper West Side. Residents have complained about the noise and smells from daily truck emissions. One truck consistently violates parking regulations by blocking street cleaners, she said.
Joseph Bolanos, president of the Landmark76 historic block association, has documented the proliferation of food vendors since May and introduced the issue at Community Board 7’s full board meeting, on July 7. He said that some carts operate 24 hours a day, violating Department of Health rules that carts be stored at night in an approved commissary facility. Many carts also leave garbage and grease residue on the sidewalk when they depart each night, he said.
“What’s the point of having to jump through hoops to have sidewalk cafés when these guys don’t have to answer to anybody?” Bolanos said in an interview.
The struggle on the Upper West Side represents a broader fight across the city following a new influx of vendors, some of whom carry illegally obtained permits. The Health Department makes about a dozen permits available each year through a lottery system, and the lagging supply has fostered the growth of a lucrative black market for the selling of permits. As of June 23, there were 4,500 legal permits being used in the city, according to the Health Department.
A recent undercover operation by the city’s Department of Investigation, resulting in six arrests, revealed a black market in mobile food vending permits in which at least 500 legal permit holders may have sold their permits. While filing fees to obtain a six-month or two-year permit legally are less than $200, the investigation revealed permits being sold on the underground market for $2,000 to $15,000.
In order to obtain a permit, vendors must pass a Health Department food safety course, and they must demonstrate that the cart has the necessary facilities to prevent food contamination. Carts that prepare food on the spot are required to have hand-washing capacities, for example. Illegal vendors do not necessarily have such facilities.
“Anybody who is not licensed to serve food on the streets of New York is not well enough aware of food protection issues, and there’s no guarantee that they’re equipped to serve food safely,” said Elliot Marcus, associate commissioner for the Bureau of Food Safety at the Health Department.
With a staff of only 25 to 30 inspectors, the Health Department sometimes has trouble enforcing its food vendor safety regulations, Marcus said. The city is divided into 60 sectors for inspection, and each one is visited every five weeks. Vendors sometimes pack up their stands and move away when they see inspectors approaching, he added.
Jesse Bodine, director of constituent services and policy for Brewer, conceded that the department is “pushed to limit” handling a variety of issues, including food cart vending. But some changes might improve the situation, including improved follow-up after inspections.
“There seems to be a problem with a lack of follow-up and being able to ensure that each of these food cart vendors are following all the rules and are legitimate,” Bodine said.
Of course vendor controversy is nothing new, with brick and mortar stores long complaining that the mobile merchants unfairly offer cheaper products because they don’t pay property tax and other business expenses.
C.P. Yang Corp, a greengrocer on the corner of West 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue, pays monthly rent exceeding $20,000. The store has been open 15 years but has been competing with a nearby cart for the past two or three years, according store manager Suo Yang.
“They don’t pay rent and have a better cheap price,” Yang said. “We can’t stand [it] anymore.”
Board 7 Chair Helen Rosenthal said that the Business and Community Issues Committee would address food vendors at its September meeting. Additionally, Brewer is planning to discuss the issue with representatives from the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Borough President Scott Stringer and other elected officials.
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