Food Vendors Speak Out on City's Plan to Overhaul Rules

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Food vendors selling everything from falafels and hot dogs to ice cream sandwiches and schnitzel will get a chance to weigh in on sweeping changes to the rules governing the way street food is prepared and sold.

The Health Department’s proposed rules have been public for over a month, but a hearing on Thursday offered the first and last opportunity for cart and truck operators, and members of the public, to comment in person.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Food carts would be limited in size to five feet by ten, in order to not crowd sidewalks. As the Wall Street Journal has reported this is unpopular with some cart operators.
  • Permit holders renewing their documents would be required to appear in person, and have their photo taken. This could make life difficult for black market permit re-sellers, who can fetch as much as $20,000 for the $200 permits, as WNYC recently reported. But this change alone is unlikely to completely eliminate the black market.
  • Overnight storage facilities would have to keep logs of which trucks come and go, and when.
  • Trucks and carts would be required to keep certain equipment on hand, depending on what kinds of foods are present. For example, a vendor working with raw meat or eggs would need a culinary sink, separate from a sink for waste water.

"First and foremost we're a public health agency, and the new regulations attempt to shore up and clarify rules to protect the safety of the food that's served by mobile food vending units" explained Dan Kass, deputy commissioner for Environmental Health in the Department of Health.

Many vendors speaking at the hearing said new specs for equipment and carts seemed to defy logic. For example, carts selling prepared food would need to install 25-gallon water tanks, instead of the current standard 10-gallon tank.

“I have never had a problem of running out of water to wash my hands. I don't know why the health department is requiring 25-gallons water tank,” hot dog and shish kebab vendor Muhammad Saad Ali said.

Ali asked Department of Health officials to consider grandfathering in existing carts like his.

“I have already spent thousands of dollars to build and change my cart according to the Health Department’s rules through the years,” he said.

But vendors weren't the only critics. Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, said carts are a nuisance to his members’ businesses, and the maximum dimensions should be smaller than the proposed five feet by ten.

“That's a store, not a cart. Five by ten is awfully large,” Biederman said.

Several speakers sought to draw the attention of city officials to the grey and black market for food truck permits.

Jack Beller, vice president of Worksman Cycles and  800-Buy-Cart, the city’s oldest maker of food carts, said the Department of Health is proposing baby steps to clamp down on illegal permit transfers.

“It does nothing to address the real problem,” Beller said, “which is that the permit itself has become a commodity from which to make a profit, rather than its original intent, to act as a vehicle for an individual without much means to get a foothold in the bottom rung of the market economy.”

Beller said the city should either issue new permits to meet demand or allow vendors to transfer permits legally, similarly to how taxi medallions are bought and sold.

For a complete list of rules changes click here. The last day to submit written comments on the proposal is Thursday.