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Street Vendors: Toughing It Out On The Streets Of New York City

By mahir | April 19, 2011

Photographer: Julia Burgi

By Julia Burgi

While becoming a mobile food vendor is a less complex and expensive enterprise in many ways from opening a restaurant, it’s just as bureaucratically complicated in New York City. Once you’re open, too, there’s another host of issues to face, specifically police harassment. While mobile food vending is definitely an alternative business plan, it is also very hard work.

Obtaining a license is a quite a process; there might be a 5 to 10 year wait for the $200 year-round street vending license, unless you’re willing to pay upwards of $10,000 for one on the black market. Before you can even acquire the basic license though, there are piles of tax forms, employee training sessions, and health-code certification, to name a few, that must be completed.

Once you’ve got the paperwork filled out and your vending unit, generally a cart or a truck, (though rumor has it there’s now a low-rider mobile food vendor @vittlesnwhips on Twitter,) you can hit the streets.

Like in a restaurant, your business must be clean and up to health code standards, with the additional worry of zoning regulation. Despite their best efforts of vendors to comply with all the laws, one of the biggest challenges that mobile food vendors face is police harassment. For whatever reason, police target mobile food vendors frequently – my guess is that the police have daily ticket quotas they have to fill and vendors make easy targets. Most of all, 93% of the mobile food vending employees New York City are foreign-born and might not possess sufficient English skills to effectively confront a police officer. Zoning regulation is extremely complex and might be violated by a matter of inches or feet. Hygiene is another important concern for mobile food vendors, though sometimes police may exaggerate or fabricate a problem in order to issue a ticket.

Outside of the psychological component of police harassment, the fines charged to street vendors can be as much as $1000 – an amount nearly impossible to meet for most vendors. Also, tickets go to the employee, who usually does not make very much to begin with, rather than the owner. The Street Vendor Project is actively campaigning to lower the fines. See how you can help at http://streetvendor.org/.

For many mobile food vendors, though, enduring these trials still outweighs sitting in a cubicle or being unemployed. Their hard work brings a lot to New York City!

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