New Plan to Count Food Trucks Makes Street Vendors Fear for Livelihood


street vendors

Rafits Falafel Cart on 23rd St. Photo: Carolina Küng

On a rainy day, the aroma of crunchy golden balls of falafel served inside warm steaming pita bread at Moshe’s Falafel cart on the corner of 46th Street and 6th Avenue can be smelled a block away. Around the corner, Moshe– who New York magazine considers the “king” of falafel – serves a line of hungry loyal customers unafraid to venture out in bad weather for their favorite treat. Inside the aluminum cart, however, workers fear a proposed new city law to count food trucks and carts could lead to the end of their business.

Currently, New York City’s Department of Health issues as many as 5,110 vendor permits a year without making a distinction between trucks and carts, but that would change under terms of a new bill proposed recently by Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan).

“Our legislation just wants to ask the health department to tell us how many carts and how many trucks are around the city,” Brewer said in an interview last week. But she denied earlier reports that the bill was an attempt to crack down on trucks or force them off the streets, saying, “I think trucks are convenient; I would just like them to park in the right place, be quieter and healthier in terms of exhaust. But the vendors are hardworking, I know many of them personally, and I have great respect for their work.”

Vendors should not park in metered spots or in front of fire hydrants, Brewer said.

Rain or shine, Moshe’s Falafel has occupied the same busy spot in the business district of Midtown Manhattan for the past 35 years. “We never park illegally!” says Shalom Gutnik, 63, a  part-time employee who works at the cart to help Mr. Moshe himself (“a close friend” as Gutnik describes him). The prospect of tighter regulations and location changes seem both unfair and frightening to Gutnik.“Once we had to move because of construction to the other side of the street, and our customers went crazy looking for us,” he said. “This could be terrible for business.”

At 43rd Street and 6th Avenue, Najmul Haque’s Fresh Fruit cart was parked directly in front of a fire hydrant. Upon digesting the news of the city council’s hope to enforce parking regulations, Haque said he was worried that his already slim profit margins would erode further if he were forced to move. “I make three hundred dollars on fruit a day,” he explained. “But this stand is too expensive; the fruit costs me two hundred, two hundred fifty dollars. If they make me move or pay fines, I will not make a profit at all.”


Alex Gabriel prepares a customer's lunch in midtown Manhattan. Photo: AP

Brewer said the aim of the legislation is not to control street vendors or to try to cut the rising number of vending permits, as the Daily News reported last week.

Before the measure to count trucks versus carts is enacted, it must go through the council’s transportation and budget committee for review and approval, Brewer added: “There is no prediction yet of when it will go into effect. The city council does not operate on a certain timeframe. … If the committee then decides to have a hearing, it will need to be revised.”

Brewer said there are two issues to consider. “First of all, the speaker’s office, led by Speaker Quinn  — that runs a budget of one hundred sixty five million dollars, larger than some entire countries – will now look to see what other bills are relevant to the same discussion and will group them for a hearing,” she said. “One bill alone does not make much sense, but there is legislation pending for a vendor task force, and we also have one that has to do with getting numbers of what fees are paid from trucks and what fees are paid from carts for legislation. We are also finding ways to make generators less noisy.”

David Weber, a 34-year-old co-founder of the Rickshaw Dumpling food truck – parked each week from Monday to Friday at the crossing between 5th Avenue and 23rd Street — and president of the New York City Food Truck Association, said he agrees that Brewer’s proposal is innocuous. “It is simply to track the number of food trucks versus food carts,” Weber said.  “Right now, the same permit can be used on a food truck or a food cart, so no one is sure of exactly how many trucks versus carts are out and about in the city.”

That said, the association believes that many truck and cart owners will not survive the harsh winter unless other “archaic” and “harmful” city regulations are revised, Weber added.

For instance, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled earlier this year that street trucks cannot operate out of metered spaces.

“We disagree with the Supreme Court interpretation in that merchandise is commonly understood to be a commodity that is bought and sold,” the association’s website said. “We believe street food is a service. Street food is bought, but not re-sold.”

Since enforcement of the court ruling began in May, the association estimates that street truck revenues have dropped by from 30 to 70 percent. ” As we move toward winter, many trucks are considering closing permanently or moving to cities with more favorable regulatory environments,” the association’s website reads.

Indeed, according to Weber, the metered parking law – introduced in 1965 and originally designed to protect narrow streets from getting cluttered– is both outdated and dangerous, as most customers are found in the heart of working districts where parking is metered.

In the past year alone, two association members’  trucks– the Urban Oasis and Ladle of Love – have been forced to shut down, and the prospects of a harsh winter are not soothing for struggling vendors stuck in remote parts of town, Weber said.

“Operating conditions that make it hard to generate revenue makes these businesses less profitable, until they are unprofitable and entrepreneurs choose to close them or pursue different opportunities,” Weber said. “If the city loses the food truck industry, it will lose a powerful incubator for culinary innovation.”