Lift the cap on NYC’s street vendors

By StreetNet International
April 10, 2015
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The number of permits for street vendors hasn’t budged since 1981, the year Prince Charles married Princess Diana

Chef Adam Sobel sitting next to the well known Cinnamon Truck with his dog Long line of customers que for the delicious food. The Cinnamon Truck and staff will be missed by New Yorkers

Many New Yorkers are mourning the closure of Cinnamon Snail, the city’s most popular food truck and reigning Vendy Award winner, after it was forced to shut off its engine earlier this month.

Hundreds of fans lined up for more than two hours in frigid temperatures to try one last habanero apricot grilled tempeh with smoked chili coconut bacon. Their love and sadness for the food truck’s delicacies echoed across social media.

After five years building his business from staff of one to a 30-person operation, Chef Adam Sobel called it quits. Mr. Sobel terminated his business because the city would not give this visionary food purveyor a permit to operate his mobile business.

Cinnamon Snail is not alone. Thousands of potential food entrepreneurs, many of them immigrants pursuing the American Dream, have had their ambitions crushed by the city’s outdated and arbitrary cap on food-vending permits.

In 1981, large corporations and real estate interests persuaded the city to limit vending permits. The big retailers claimed that vendors undercut them on prices and took away their customers. In fact, competition is the American way. Also, many of those same big companies can trace their roots to a pushcart—something they invariably forget to mention!

Thirty-four years later, vending has moved into the mainstream. City planners have begun to recognise that vendors help create lively, pedestrian-friendly urban centers. New York is still living in the past. Although the city has seen a renaissance since 1981 and the food scene is more exciting than ever, the number of vending permits has not budged from the 3,000 the City Council set in the same year that Prince Charles married Princess Diana.

Instead of visiting the Department of Health, vendors like Mr. Sobel might have to turn to the black market, where two-year permits that the city grants for $200 change hands for as much as $25,000. It’s illegal and risky. Transactions take place in dark garages with envelopes of cash. For Mr. Sobel, it is not worth the risk. He’s planning to take his truck to New Jersey, where regulations are more favorable.

Many vendors are not so lucky. Unwilling to wait 20 or so years for a permit, and unable to buy one on the black market, they are forced to sell their tacos or tamales without one. The result is often arrest and confiscation of their pushcarts. If they are here without papers, they may be deported. All the while, the police lose time and effort that could be spent going after real criminals. As countless Cinnamon Snail fans will attest, the system isn’t working—for vendors, their customers, or the city’s economy.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Vendors and their allies across the city are asking the city to repeal the 1981 permit cap. We are hopeful that the City Council will take up this issue in the coming months, and that Mayor Bill de Blasio will be on board. This will allow vendors to move out of the shadows and formalise their curbside businesses. It will create thousands of good jobs for people at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. It will repair our city’s reputation as a center for food innovation. And it will make our sidewalks, once again, pathways to opportunity.

Sean Basinski is the director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center.

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