Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email

or

Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

projects-category/queens-project-category

“The people with permits, they are not working. We vendors on the streets, we need more permits,” yelled Mehdi, a New York street vendor of Bengali origin, at a recent protest for more permits. Street vending in the city – in particular food vending – is largely the domain of immigrants like Mehdi, seemingly an easy way to start earning an income.

But selling food from a street cart is no easy ride. Sean Basinski, Director of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates on behalf of street-based sellers, says food vendor licenses are relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire. There is no cap on the number of food licenses issued. There’s a catch, though. To sell food, in addition to a food license you must also acquire a permit for the food cart. But the number of permits allowed across the five boroughs has been capped at 3,000 since 1981. It can take up to 30 years for a food permit to become available.

The permit wait list opens up infrequently, usually due to political pressure. This last happened in 2004, when the city decided to do a lottery for the few available permits. Luis Alfonso Marin, a Colombian arepa vendor in Queens, recounted that “for 16 years I had to hustle to make a living without the protection of a permit.”

Consequently, the sale of permits today takes place primarily on the black market – version of the “padrone” or contract labor system that existed at the turn of the 20th century. Currently, the normally $200 permit can go for up to $25,000 on the black market. “We have two choices: to sell illegally or enter the black market,” Muhammad Attia, another street vendor activist, says. “We want to work legally, give us more permits.” Vendors, activists and their allies across New York City are calling for an increase in the number of permits allowed – the Lift the Caps! Campaign.

Whether anything will change is now up to the 51 New York City Council members. Rumor has it that a draft bill addressing New York street vendors’ demands is making the rounds.

(Additional funding for this piece was provided by the Buenas Obras Fund)

Sarah Khan

Related stories

June 14, 2018

D’Angelos: Drive-In Sausage

Queens | By Dave Cook
By Dave Cook
QueensNew York’s street food vendors usually ply their trade where potential customers congregate. On side streets in midtown Manhattan, they set up four and five abreast for the weekday lunch rush. During warm-weather weekends, they feed footballers and their fans outside ball fields in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook and East New York. In…
May 1, 2017

Iglesia La Luz del Mundo: Praise the Pupusa

Queens | By Brad Fox
By Brad Fox
QueensOn April 26, 1926, Eusebio Joaquín González was working as a domestic servant for a pair of ascetic preachers named Silas and Saulo in Monterey, Mexico, when he had a vision – God changed his name to Aaron and instructed him to strike out on his own. He and his wife Elisa traveled to Guadalajara, where Aaron…
October 21, 2016

Street Carts of Desire: Taking It to the Streets

Queens | By Sarah Khan
By Sarah Khan
QueensTo organize for your right to vend is not glamorous; it involves community and trust-building, meetings, disagreements, unification around a campaign, administrative quagmires and persistence. This is what a small group of Latino vendors in Corona, Queens decided to take on. “I get too many tickets because of the ’20 feet rule’ or the ‘10…
Select your currency
USD United States (US) dollar
EUR Euro