Broken Permitting System Forces NYC Food Trucks Into Black Market
NEW YORK CITY, NY - Running a food truck may be the hippest job around. But there is a shadowy side to food trucks’ fun and quirky image.
In order to get started, many of these gourmet trucks flout the law, and pay high prices to obtain black-market vendor permits. They say they have no choice.
Ed Song is a part of the new wave of gourmet trucks. Together with two friends, he started Korilla, a group of three bright orange trucks that sell bulgogi, burritos and tofu tacos.
Speaking from his office in Ridgewood, Queens, the spiky-haired 26-year old sporting a Mickey Mouse T-Shirt said he decided to start a food business shortly after graduating from Columbia with a degree in economics and mathematics.
It was the year Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers failed, and striking out on his own seemed like the best path.
“All the jobs in finance were all drying up. And so I decided to take the opportunity to do what I wanted to do. And follow a passion,” said Song, whose parents emigrated to New York from South Korea.
Then Song discovered the fact that confronts every new food truck entrepreneur: to sell prepared food on the streets of New York City you need a permit. It’s a little bit like a driver’s license, authorizing the holder to be on the road.
A Mobile Permit Road Block
There are only 3,000 citywide, two-year permits, and there are so many names on the wait list (more than 2,000) that the Department of Health hasn’t taken names since 2007.
“There really is no legal channel to go through to obtain a permit,” he said.
So Song (right) turned to a middleman for the permit for one of his three trucks (the other two permits he obtained by going into partnership with existing permit holders).
Recalling his first contact with the middleman, Song said “it was scary. You’re giving them a lot of hundred dollar bills without a receipt. It’s just the nature of the business.”
After an initial down payment, Song took the truck to the Department of Health for inspection, and when it passed, he paid the balance and received the white sticker that’s now on the side of the truck. In total, it cost about $20,000.
Several others in the food truck business confirmed the existence of a large and robust underground market for permits. But only Ed Song allowed his name to be used.
One popular vendor told WNYC anonymously that turning to the black market went against her instincts, as someone who’d worked in a variety of retail and service businesses.
“All the other jobs or businesses I was involved with were much more straightforward in terms of paperwork or how you get a license for something,” she said.
Vendors say the city’s Health Department does a thorough job of checking sanitary conditions in trucks. And traffic police frequently chase trucks out of spaces where vending is not allowed. But by ignoring the trade in permits, the Health Department forces them into the black market it claims it’s trying to eliminate.
It’s not known how many trucks operate under illicitly procured permits.
Song isn’t even sure whose name is on the permit he uses, and treats as his own.
“I could try to remember. I do have his name somewhere,” he said. “I don’t think this person even lives in New York City.”
Find the entire article by Ilya Marritz at wnyc.org <here>