A longtime local controversy over food cart vendors was reawakened last month when police officers handcuffed a woman selling mangoes from a food cart in a Brooklyn subway station.

The city’s rules about food carts – including no food carts in the subways – are complicated and numerous. Maria Falcon’s arrest, caught on video, led to public outcry on social media, with people asking why the muscle of the NYPD was needed for what seemed like a minor offense. Mayor Eric Adams pushed back against the outrage, saying that turning a blind eye to street vendors in the subway is the beginning of a slippery slope.

To better understand the issues at stake, Gothamist looked back at the city’s long and complicated tug-o-war with the churro vendors, coffee carts and Halal trucks. We found that they are as beloved as they are controversial.

Why are police cracking down on street vendors all of a sudden?

The tension between street vendors, police and city officials is nothing new. It’s been happening since Ed Koch was mayor in the late 1970s, and even before that. The tension often arises because the mobile food vendors’ interests tend to clash with those of brick-and-mortar food stores and restaurants. Some people also complain that the vendors block sidewalks and other public spaces, like subway platforms. Over time, a long list of rules have been written. There are complex guidelines about where carts can and can’t be on any given street.

In the early days of the pandemic, police eased up on enforcing street vendor rules. Advocates say food carts were a much needed source of affordable, open air food in a difficult time. They were also small businesses that kept many people afloat. But this spring, as Mayor Eric Adams works to bring order back to the city streets, city agents and police have started issuing tickets again and, in rare cases, making arrests.

A photo of Mohamed Awad, who sells halal food from a cart on 33rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue in Manhattan holding up numerous tickets.

Mohamed Awad, who sells halal food from a cart on 33rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues in Manhattan, holding up numerous tickets he's received.

Mohamed Awad, who sells halal food from a cart on 33rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues in Manhattan, holding up numerous tickets he's received.
Courtesy of Mohamed Awad

What’s the deal with all the mobile food carts I see around the city? Are they selling legally?

To sell food legally, a street vendor needs both a license, and a permit for their cart. The licenses are not that hard to get. They cost $50 every two years, and vendors need to register to pay taxes and take a food safety course to get them. It’s the cart permits that can get costly and complicated. Right now there are only 5,100 permits available in the city, though the City Council last year agreed to add 400 a year for the next 10 years, which will almost double the total number available by 2032. But advocates estimate that there are already about 20,000 vendors – both food and merchandise – working in the city, and many of them cannot get a permit.

The cap has been in place for about 40 years, and even the wait list has been closed since 2007. The restrictions have given rise to an underground market for the permits, where private citizens have obtained them, and rent them out to vendors for as much as $23,000 for two years. Directly from the city they would cost $200.

Sherif Baioumy, who rents a permit for his Midtown halal truck on the underground market, says that’s a lot of money that could be going to the city that ‘s instead going to underground operators. “I'm doing all the hard work,” Baioumy said. “I'm out here ... in the winter when it's snowing, when it's a hundred degrees hot and I'm working right in front of the grill and the gyro machine… while I pay this person, all that cash under the table. They don't report that to the IRS or pay any taxes on it. They just take the cash and go away.”

Didn’t the City Council pass a law last year aimed at fixing some of these problems?

Yes. Last year the Council passed a bill that adds 4,000 street vendor permits over the next ten years, and tasks civilian city employees, not police officers, with enforcing the rules that govern them. Still, police officers continue to be involved in some arrests, city records and reports show. A spokesperson for the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which oversees the inspections, said city workers still do about 15 percent of inspections jointly with police. Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for the interests of street vendors, said one reason may be that inspectors don’t have the authority to demand that vendors show them their identification, while police do. Maria Lopez, who sells fruit and other food at Broadway Junction, said through a translator that during the early days of the pandemic she didn’t see the police much. Now, they seem to be back. “A lot of her partners are being displaced and having their products taken away,” the translator said. “It's been really difficult because they are just trying to make a living.” A spokesperson for the NYPD said in an email that while the primary responsibility is led by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, police maintain the authority to enforce all violations and ”officers use a high level of discretion.”

What do local businesses and city officials say about how vendor rules are being enforced?

Mayor Adams defended the arrest of Maria Falcon in the subway, saying it’s important to enforce existing rules – like the one against selling food in the subway. "Next day is propane tanks being on the subway system. Next day is barbecuing on the subway system," he said at the time.

Restaurateurs have also expressed concern that too many street vendors with low overhead, charging low prices, may drive away business from their establishments. Mark Dicus, executive director of the SoHo Broadway Initiative, a Neighborhood Improvement District serving people who live and work in the SoHo Broadway Corridor, said he believes street vendors have an important role to play in the city’s economy, but there should be rules to ensure that the food is safe, and they are not creating hazards by blocking roads or sidewalks, or emitting exhaust.

“Our position is there just needs to be somebody responsible for this and whatever agency that is, they need the tools and resources to do effective enforcement so vendors who want to follow the rules can follow the rules, and the bad actors can be held accountable,” he said.

Kaufman-Gutierrez, of the Street Vendors Project, said she agrees that rules are needed. She said vendors just want the city to make them easier to follow, and to put as much effort into educating and supporting vendors as they do into ticketing them.

So what now?

Last week, a city board called the Street Vendor Advisory Board announced some recommendations that they say would create a fairer system for licensing and regulating food cart vendors. The recommendations would need to be adopted by the mayor as an executive order, or voted on by the Council to become law. They include new small business support for street vendors, simplifying bookkeeping requirements, allowing mobile vendors to keep food on top of carts, and removing criminal liability for vendors on the street.

Kaufman-Gutierrez said it’s a step in the right direction: “Street vending is as old as New York City and part of what makes our streets and sidewalks so full of life. Now, as we are reimagining the streets with outdoor dining, street vendors, who were the original open dining, should be included in that planning, not penalized.”