NYC Food Carts: Behind the Scenes of New Regulations

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in Blog, Breaking News, Business, Eat & Drink, Uncategorized.


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Despite the unappetizing nickname “street meat,” are an extremely popular snack and meal option in the City. They range from basic coffee or pretzel carts to elaborate, gourmet food trucks with their own Yelp pages and faithful customers who have no qualms about waiting in line for—what could be—hours.

Now the has proposed some new regulations for food cart vendors. The claims these regulations would make current rules easier and more transparent for those who operate food carts. The implication is that many food cart vendors do not break the rules on purpose; these rules may simply be difficult to understand.

The DOH is also proposing changes to some of its rules governing mobile food vending to “improve sanitary practices and decrease the threat of foodborne illnesses.” Additionally the Department hopes the new regulations will help control the rampant black market for mobile food permits.

New regulations follow some recent complaints about food cart vendors. Many such complaints come from The 34th Street Partnership, a not-for-profit, private management company organized as a business improvement district. The Partnership called food vendor trucks an eyesore and wants the city to reduce the number in Midtown. The Partnership says food cart vendors are also “terrible citizens” who litter.

Street Vendor Project advocates for street food vendors. Attorney Matthew Shapiro, representing the Project, said fines given to food carts prevents them from making their carts look nicer. (Some of these many potential fines are listed in the food cart facts below.)

For one, the city hopes to crack down on accountability. Many food carts are not directly operated by the person holding the permit for the cart. The proposed regulations would require that person to be present during inspections.

Food cart size is also a problem—too-large carts may face a violation. The new regulations propose food trucks be limited to 10 feet long by 5 feet wide, except in the case of trucks. Storage facilities would also be required to log when every cart is brought in or leaves as dictated by the new rules.

Then there’s the black market. In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported that a hot dog stand in the Bronx could cost $14,000 for a two-year permit. In this case the permit-holder, not the city, is charging the person who operates the stand.

According to the WSJ: “The city charges a mere $200 for most food-cart permits, which must be paid every two years when they are renewed. But it only issues 3,100 year-round permits plus an additional 1,000 seasonal permits—not enough to satisfy demand. Transferring or renting these permits to another vendor is illegal but everyone, including the city’s Health Department, acknowledges, that it happens.” There are 2080 people on the city’s waiting list for a two-year food cart permit.

According to the NY Post, food carts in accumulated 2,517 general violations in 2011 by July. Despite violations, the city’s health department does not grade food carts like it does restaurants. The greatest violations it reports appear to result from uncleanliness on the part of the vendor, i.e. failing to wash one’s hands. The independently popular, fancier food trucks tend to be more sanitary.

Horror stories abound, though they must be “digested” with a grain of salt. One person whose brother fell victim to street cart uncleanliness told CBS in 2011 that his brother had to be hospitalized and they “found rat hair in his stomach.” (Perhaps “street meat” is not so far off, though this accusation would not be surprising in nearly any NYC restaurant.)

There may be some benefits to the proposed plan. According to the DOH website, “Carts or trucks that sell only pre-packaged, non-potentially hazardous foods or whole fresh fruits and vegetables could be stored in a facility other than a commissary” provided the facility meets certain regulations.

Despite this, many vendors fail to see the benefits.The Press was curious what food cart vendors had to say about these new proposed laws.

Two food cart vendors operating separate stands in had not heard anything about the proposal.

At a Rafiqi’s stand, also in Union Square, two cart workers present, neither of whom was the unit’s permit owner, had heard of the proposal:

“We’re all thinking the same thing,” said one Rafiqi’s worker who did not identify himself, of other vendors to whom he had spoken. “It’s crazy.” He said they agreed there were already too many restrictions in place.

Three vendors in the Flatiron area around lunchtime said they had not heard of the proposals either, while some of them seemed reluctant to the Press at all. One coffee cart vendor in the area said of the proposals: “It’s just talk.” He seemed to believe new regulations would not apply to his coffee cart.

Two vendors in what would be, by new regulations, an oversized vehicle said their boss was not there when asked about the regulations, and then that they had not heard of these regulations either.

There will be a public forum on July 19 to address the new proposal.

In 2007, New York Magazine released some interesting facts on these food carts:

-Black-market rental at the time was $3,000 a year

-The most common violation was “standing too far from the curb” (more than eighteen inches). Other violations included vending within twenty feet of a building entrance, vending at a bus stop, not offering a customer a receipt and resting food on wooden surfaces. 

-A typical vendor paid $433 a year in fines, with New York courts dealing with 59,000 vending cases every year 

-Carts are stored in garages at night, with monthly rent between $250 and $300 (many of these garages have been shut down by the Health Department) 

-Average daily revenue for a food cart was $200 to $300 

-Average annual take was $7,500 to $14,000

-The most profitable food cart item was coffee, the least profitable being fruit 

-There are no official standards regarding the quality of meat or other products

Find out more here.

More information on proposed food cart regulations can be found here.

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