Food Carts and Trucks: a Proposal

As I write, it appears that the City of New York is getting ready to give in to vendor advocates and greatly expand the number of mobile food vending license it makes available. While observers of the impact and mechanics of the mobile food vending business might be surprised by such a decision, particularly in the wake of the thorough piece by Jeff Koyen in Crain's, I started wondering about what this vast program should look like. 

Welcome to New York!

Welcome to New York!

Of course, the City could simply choose to put in place the program proposed by Dan Biederman, here in (again) Crain's.

Mr. Biederman is right that most of the issues created by the carts would go away, particularly the opacity of the black market for licenses, while both vendors and consumers would benefit. Yet, I wondered: what should a city's policy towards food carts and trucks look like? I will speak indiscriminately about carts and trucks, as there is no fundamental difference between them as far as regulations. Trucks are larger, and sit on the street rather than the sidewalk. That is the primary distinction, and useful in the sense that carts should be small, to not become encumbrances, while more complex food service operations can use trucks, and park on the street. 

I believe, if one were to start from scratch, that the City should seek to fulfill a number of goals:

  • offer quality and interesting food, at reasonable prices; 
  • offer the opportunity to entrepreneurs to start a food business; 
  • offer food that is safe for the public to consume, sold from clean mobile food units and commissaries; 
  • Put food in locations where it is needed and valued, not simply where revenues for vendors will be the highest (here, again in an NYC example think green cab versus yellow cab); 
  • Prevent the "turf wars" and that frequently take place between vendors; 
  • Finally , it should provide some revenue for the City in compensation for the use of public space. This is a sound principle that applies even beyond this topic.

Let's start with the location of the service. The City, in partnership with neighborhood groups or local stakeholders, should determine where and when carts are welcome to operate. Those spaces should then be auctioned for a period of time, as per the Parks program praised by Dan Biederman in his Crain's editorial. Business Improvement Districts could be particularly good allies of any municipality in identifying locations where carts and trucks would not be obstacles to traffic or nuisances to brick and mortar businesses but instead could become agents of renewal or economic development. This process would also make it much easier for the City to push vendors to comply with sanitation and appearance rules, as they would be tied to a single space. It would also free up enforcement resources better used elsewhere. Further, I propose that only when the license holder is present onsite should the business be allowed to operate. This would prevent the resale market that is the norm today (it is the same for newsstand operations in the City, another sector where such a rule change would be more equitable ).

Trash, oil spills, terrible graphics, flashy signs, generators and refueling tanks, it is all here!

Trash, oil spills, terrible graphics, flashy signs, generators and refueling tanks, it is all here!

As for the units themselves, there should be common-sense restrictions on their size. The City of New York did not demonstrate great authority by simply recognizing that carts had "grown" in recent years from 2 feet by 5 feet to upwards of 5 by 10 and making the larger measurement the new standard. The same goes for trucks. Some are monsters more suited to large suburban parking lots than to crowded urban streets. Until the City imposes sensible restrictions, both types will keep growing. Second, they should be in the food business, not the advertising business. Advertising should not be allowed. The City could manage and ad program if it were to provide carts, as it does for other street elements such as Newsstands, bus stops, bike shares, flagpoles or other street elements. Out of character flashy signs and messy generators should also be prohibited, as well as loud music. A clean and secure space for propane and battery operations for electric equipment should become the standard, with no fuel generators. 

Commissaries should likewise be licensed and inspected. Carts and trucks should be registered to a commissary, again making any enforcement issues much easier to handle, and improving sanitary conditions. 

The program should also prevent the working conditions that exist now, with license holders and commissary owners earning significant income off hourly worker; who are earning less than a "living wage" despite very long hours and a harsh work environment. To do so, I propose that the revenues derived by the City from auctioning off street locations be pooled into a startup fund that would help food entrepreneurs finance their operations, at least at first. The City could also lease carts of its own design, if it so chose. New immigrants and chefs wishing to start a food cart or truck business could thus easily bid on a spot, and face a much safer and easier financing environment than they do today. Another change would be to make it so that no individual have the possibility of owning more than one license. Simple biometric data could prevent fraud. Again this would favor the workers, and make it more difficult for savvy operators seeking to create rents off a public program. 

A single City agency should be responsible for managing the entire program. New York currently divides its work on the subject between Consumer Affairs, Health, and Transportation, with the police in charge of much of the enforcement. As one can imagine, it is less than ideal. A single office should be responsible of awarding permit, overseeing the auction of locations, inspecting the operators, and dealing with other City agencies.

The utopia described above could become a true and self financing job program, allowing food operators to create a customer base prior to moving on to brick and mortar. If they wish to stick to simple cart or truck offerings, as many hot dog or rice and chicken carts do, they could do so knowing their spot is secure and valued by the community, free from hassling by enforcement as long as they pay their bills, respect sanitation rules, and keep to their spots. Finally, the system would remove the crony capitalists that now dominate the industry and exploit cart operators.