Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why Manhattan food trucks are mediocre

In the past few decades, food in New York City has gone through a complete transformation, but the street-vendor market, which should be more nimble, barely budges. Shouldn’t there be four Wafels & Dinges trucks for every hot-dog cart?

David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, explained that the ratio is more like 25 to 1 the other way. That’s because despite the inherent attractiveness of cute trucks and clever food options, the business stinks. There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on. ...

[Stefan] Nafziger also knows well the regulatory hassles of the business. After one of his employees spent eight hours in jail for selling falafel without a license, he strictly follows the rule insisting that every mobile-food employee has Health Department certification. The trouble is that he needs to employ four people, each with his own license; if one quits, it can take two months for a new worker to get the proper paperwork. Nafziger said he holds on to his truck only because it’s basically a moving billboard for his two, more successful brick-and-mortar restaurants, in Greenwich Village and NoLIta. And stationary restaurants, by the way, require that only a single employee on duty have a Health Department certification. ...

One woman, an Ecuadorean immigrant who sells kebabs in Bushwick, Brooklyn, handed Basinski the six tickets that she and her husband received on a single afternoon. The total came to $2,850, which, she said, was much more than what she makes in a good week. She had a street-vendor’s license, she said, but didn’t understand that she also needed a separate permit for her cart.

The food-truck business, I realized, is a classic case of bureaucratic inertia. ...

As Rigie spoke, I was reminded of corrupt countries that I’ve visited, like Iraq and Haiti, where illogical and arbitrarily enforced rules create the wrong set of incentives. ...

Some sensible changes to the current food-vendor system may have long-term benefits for everyone, but the immediate impact could spell short-term losses for those who now profit from the system. A small group of New Yorkers — particularly owners of commissaries and physical restaurants — are highly motivated to lobby politicians not to change things. And most of the potential beneficiaries don’t realize they’re missing out. Many of the rest of us would love to have more varied food trucks, but we don’t care enough to pressure the City Council.

The one group that clearly suffers from the current system — the ticketed vendors — are often poorly paid immigrants without legal status and virtually no power. This sort of dynamic more or less sums up the economies of the third world.