The New York City Council is considering a plan to double, over seven years, the number of food carts and trucks on the streets. It’s the right impulse, not just for hungry office workers but also for hungry entry-level entrepreneurs — the moms and pops who increasingly find it too expensive and difficult to open mom-and-pop businesses here.
The legislation, sponsored by the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and several other Council members, originated with the Manhattan borough president, Gale Brewer. It tries to tackle a number of problems at once, starting with the economic distortion caused by the tight supply of food-vendor permits.
That number has been fixed since the 1980s at about 4,235, with a predictable result: a black market, in which many vendors pay absentee permit-holders outrageous sums for the privilege of selling pretzels and hot dogs; long waiting lists; and a proliferation of vendors selling illegally. Maybe the worst consequence, from an eater’s standpoint, is the stifling of innovation. That is, vendors who can’t risk losing their investment sell only what they know will sell: hot dogs.
The legislation, the Street Vending Modernization Act, is betting that the city can be made a better habitat for street eating — more ice cream and biryani and lobster rolls and pupusas and fruits and vegetables — while making the whole business more lawful and orderly. The fee for a two-year permit would rise to $1,000, from $200, with the money going to a new oversight unit to enforce the rules. This would lift a burden from the New York Police Department, and could make it less likely that all these new trucks and carts — and long customer lines and smoky, gas-powered generators — will lead to a net deterioration in the city’s quality of life.
Enforcement is a concern in an industry where many vendors are unlicensed, and where strict health-code enforcement can be a difficult, if not dubious, proposition. That is why one provision in the legislation could be especially helpful. It calls for pilot programs that would give vendors access to commercial-grade kitchens in schools and similar locations — with a likely commensurate improvement in overall efficiency, sanitation and hygiene.