“Plain and simple: we need to level the playing field.”
That’s what Justin Brannan, press secretary for Councilman Vincent Gentile, said to us when asked to comment on last week’s developments in the conflict between Bay Ridge’s food carts and brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Councilman Gentile has often been reported as opposing food carts in the BID, and made comments on the issue at the Community Board 10 general meeting in April. We reached out to Brannan, wanting to know what specific proposals the Councilman was offering.
“The mobile food vendors of today should be held to the same standards as any brick and mortar restaurant,” Brannan continued. “To that end, Councilman Gentile co-sponsored and strongly supports Councilman Daniel Garodnick’s proposed legislation which would require mobile food vendors to display letter grades similar to the ones posted in restaurants throughout the city.”
Brannan also highlighted the City’s conflicting laws and regulations, something noted in Community Board 10 chairwoman Joanne Seminara’s report to the board.
Seminara reported that the City government placed a ban on street vendors within the 86th Street BID in 1994, but the prohibition did not apply to mobile food vendors. Gentile has sought to restrict food vendors since 2010. Brick-and-mortar stores in the BID are not able to place anything on the sidewalks outside their businesses, such as sandwhich boards, and they are also responsible for sidewalk sanitation. Storefront businesses within the BID pay a premium on top of regular real estate taxes.
In a press release, the lawyer for Sammy Kassen, owner of the Middle Eastern Halal Food cart that operates at 5th Avenue and 86th Street, said that Kassen’s supporters “believe the attacks are motivated by a racist resistance to the growing and largely Arab immigrant population in Bay Ridge.” However, Tony Gentile, the Lonestar bar owner whose wildcat opposition campaign has included attempting to use physical intimidation to keep Kassen from moving into his usual spot, told the NY Daily News in a prior interview that “I am not racist…This is about the color green – money.”
(There is no relation between Vincent Gentile and Tony Gentile.)
The wildcat opposition – which also saw unnamed individuals move benches that had been bolted in another location to the corner where Kassen operates to block his cart – has done much to draw attention to the issue in the past few weeks… as well as tarnish the standing of the movement seeking reform to food cart laws.
Kassen’s attorney has threatened to sue the City if they move to ban mobile food vendors from the 86th Street BID, as reported by the Bay Ridge Courier’s Will Bredderman. The Department of Small Business Services already reviewed the situation in 2010 and declined to take action, stating that it could not offer an efficient or effective means of dealing with street vending concerns, according to Seminara’s report.
Further complicating the issue is a shortage of mobile food vendor permits that encourages permit-holders to squat on their licenses and rent them out – illegally – to legitimate food cart operators at dramatically inflated prices.
In March 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that many, possibly a majority, of food cart operators obtain their permits on the black market, due to an acute shortage of legitimate permits offered by the City. Operators can pay up to $20,000 to rent a two-year permit that the City sold for $200, with all of the difference going to the middlemen. Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, told the Wall Street Journal that 60% or more of vendors rent their permits. “There’s no sign that the Department of Health is willing to do anything about this,” he told the WSJ. “This is about economic justice within the vendor community between former vendors and current vendors.”
“Ultimately, the city needs to enact much clearer guidelines when it comes to sharing our streets with mobile food vendors,” Brannan added. “Right now we exist in a legal gray area with a bunch of arcane, labyrinthine laws – some of which plainly contradict other existing laws. What we need are guidelines that state, in no uncertain terms, the rules and regulations concerning the licensing, regulation and placement of food carts on city streets.”