NYC Restaurant Legal Help: Crackdown on Food Cart Vendors

The New York Department of Health has imposed new rules for the city’s popular food cart vendors, which line nearly every block and feed thousands daily in the city.

New York City restaurant attorneys understand that the goal of the tighter restrictions is to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, though the measures have been pushed by advocates of storefront businesses in Midtown, the 34th Street Partnership.

Proponents of the tighter regulations say that the street food vendors are an eyesore, are terrible about littering and are lacking in accountability. Meanwhile, street vendor advocates say they have difficulty maintaining the carts and improving their appearance when they are constantly slapped with fines.

One issue the health department is set to address is an apparent lack of accountability. Often, the person holding the permit is not the one who is actually selling the food. The new measure would require the person holding the license to be present during inspections.

Another issue the department is attempting to tackle is the size of the carts, which can sometimes crowd already-bustling sidewalks. The new regulations would limit the size of the carts to five feet wide by 10 feet long. Plus, vendors who keep their cart in a storage facility will have to log the time each day the cart is taken out and brought back in.

Perhaps the biggest issue surrounding the industry is that of permitting – or specifically, the black market of permitting. The Wall Street Journal reports that the city charges $200 for a two-year permit that must be renewed. But the city only allows 3,100 permits each year maximum, with another 1,000 seasonal permits during summertime. However, this isn’t nearly enough to supply demand, and there are nearly 2,100 people on the waiting list.

This makes the permits a hot-ticket item, and they can sometimes end up re-sold for several thousand dollars each. Technically, city code bars this practice, but the health department knows that it happens quite frequently. An investigation a few years ago into this practice led to three arrests, but it hasn’t really changed anything. By requiring the permit holder to be present for inspections (which could be conducted at random), the city hopes to cut down on this black market aspect of the industry.

Another critical issue is the safety of the food. Health inspectors don’t grade food carts the way they do restaurants. By July of last year, the agency had tallied more than 2,500 complaints regarding food truck vendors, with the vast majority of those being for uncleanliness and practices like failing to wash hands before food preparation.

The new regulations do indicate that there must be a minimum level of water pressure, where that had been previously undefined.

New York Magazine reports the most common violation for food cart vendors is standing too far from the curb. This accounts for more than 20 percent of violations. Vendors who are more than 18 inches from the curb can be ticketed, and the average vendor does shell out nearly $450 in fines. About 60,000 vending cases are cycled through New York courts every year.

On an average day, most carts earn between $200 and $300 daily.

Although the public looks to these vendors as an easy, cheap treat, the carts themselves are not cheap. If you’re selling simple fruits or something of that nature, it will cost you about $1,000. However, if you have a processing cart, which would be for things like coffee or kebabs or hot dogs, you’ll shell out about $15,000 just to buy the cart and prepare to open for business.

Fines are generally something vendors can ill afford. But staying legal is critical to a vendor’s ability to continue to operate.

The Wright Law Firm is a business law firm located in Midtown Manhattan. Call (212) 619-1500 for a confidential consultation.

Additional Resources:

City Bites Into Carts, By Sumathi Reddy and Amelia Harris, Wall Street Journal