NEW YORK CITY, NY – Stefan Nafziger seemed oddly downbeat for a guy watching a dozen or so hungry people line up to buy his falafels. Three years ago, when it seemed as if food trucks might take over Manhattan, he planned to have a fleet of his Taim trucks dispensing Middle Eastern fare throughout the city. He even got a Wall Street investor. Now, he says, his one truck barely justifies the cost.
I was originally hoping that Nafziger would help me figure out a decidedly New York puzzle. As I was walking through Prospect Park recently, I wanted to find a healthful snack for my son and something for me. The only options, though, were the same sort of carts that my dad took me to in the ’70s: Good Humor ice cream, overpriced cans of soda and overboiled hot dogs sitting in cloudy water. This seemed ridiculous. In the past few decades, food in New York City has gone through a complete transformation, but the street-vendor market, which should be more nimble, barely budges. Shouldn’t there be four Wafels & Dinges trucks for every hot-dog cart?
David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, explained that the ratio is more like 25 to 1 the other way. That’s because despite the inherent attractiveness of cute trucks and clever food options, the business stinks. There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on.
Enforcement is erratic. Trucks in Chelsea are rarely bothered, Nafziger said. In Midtown South, where I work and can attest to the desperate need for more lunch options, the N.Y.P.D. has a dedicated team of vendor-busting cops. “One month, we get no tickets,” Thomas DeGeest, the founder of Wafels & Dinges, a popular mobile-food businesses that sells waffles and things, told me. “The next month, we get tickets every day.” DeGeest had two trucks and five carts when he decided he couldn’t keep investing in a business that was so vulnerable to overzealous cops or city bureaucracy. Instead, DeGeest reluctantly decided to open a regular old stationary restaurant.
Nafziger also knows well the regulatory hassles of the business. After one of his employees spent eight hours in jail for selling falafel without a license, he strictly follows the rule insisting that every mobile-food employee has Health Department certification. The trouble is that he needs to employ four people, each with his own license; if one quits, it can take two months for a new worker to get the proper paperwork. Nafziger said he holds on to his truck only because it’s basically a moving billboard for his two, more successful brick-and-mortar restaurants, in Greenwich Village and NoLIta. And stationary restaurants, by the way, require that only a single employee on duty have a Health Department certification.
Nafziger and DeGeest may have become experts in the rules and regulations, but many of the city’s vendors are constantly flummoxed. I spent one recent morning in the offices of the Street Vendor Project, a worker-advocacy group. As I sat with Sean Basinski, the group’s founder, a stream of vendors came in with pink tickets in their hands. One woman, an Ecuadorean immigrant who sells kebabs in Bushwick, Brooklyn, handed Basinski the six tickets that she and her husband received on a single afternoon. The total came to $2,850, which, she said, was much more than what she makes in a good week. She had a street-vendor’s license, she said, but didn’t understand that she also needed a separate permit for her cart.
The food-truck business, I realized, is a classic case of bureaucratic inertia. The city has a right to weigh the interests of food-market owners (who don’t want food trucks blocking their windows) and diners (who deserve to know that their street meat is edible, and harmless). But many of the rules governing location were written decades ago. In the ’80s, the city capped the number of carts and trucks at 3,000 (plus 1,000 more from April to October). Technically, a permit for a food cart or truck is not transferable, but Andrew Rigie, executive director of the N.Y.C. Hospitality Alliance, said that vendors regularly pay permit holders something like $15,000 to $20,000 to lease their certificates for two years. Legally, the permit holder becomes a junior partner in the new business.
Find the entire article by Adam Davison at The New York Times <here>