“Before I had my own business but I paid $5,000 for a license and it was too expensive, too many tickets. It’s hard to care for my family,” said El Ashkar.
This week alone, El Ashkar received two tickets for $400 and $600 respectively. Since he let go of his license the father of three gets paid to run food carts. He currently mans a hot dog and chicken kabob cart on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 23 street, from 7a.m. to 7p.m.
Mobile inspectors, from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, gave him the tickets. They said the chicken El Ashkar was using was not fresh enough and fined him for using it. Although he’s happy he won’t have to pay the tickets directly El Ashkar is still worried because some chicken is left at end of each day. The slow business makes it hard to buy a new frozen bag of poultry daily without losing money.
“Business is slow, I am not selling a lot and I don’t know why they give tickets if the chicken is good,” the man said. “It takes five months of work to pay to the city every day in tickets and license alone. Now I just work but it’s still hard.”
Currently there are about 3,000 food carts with licenses in Manhattan, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Web site. New licenses are no longer available since the city stopped issuing them in the late 70s. However, interested vendors can apply for one and wait until it becomes available, as stated on-line.
If waiting is not an option, people can also rent carts from licensed vendors and spend up to $3,000 a year in rent. Michael Idov said in an article for New York Magazine that, “black market” food cart renting is common. But many of the people who rent these carts are not aware of the regulations and end up with tickets like El Ashkar’s.
“The most common violation is standing ‘too far from the curb.’ You can’t vend within twenty feet of a building entrance. Not offering a customer a receipt is a violation, as is vending at a bus stop. A typical vendor pays $433 a year in fines, and New York’s courts deal with 59,000 vending-related cases every year,” Idov wrote in his article.
With the cost of food, tickets and, if applicable, rent, a vendor can easily go out of business. The regulations are necessary, though. A supervisor from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that in a city with millions of residents food carts need to be inspected to maintain a health standards. Adding that it may seem many tickets are given at once but inspectors check different carts every day.
Generally, the vendors at these carts are immigrants trying to make a living and speak little or bad English. Because of this, some believe the regulations and treatment towards vendors needs to change. They don’t ask for special treatment, rather for respect and patience.
“The history of New York is one with a history of immigrants who came here with dreams of making it in the New World. Primarily this is a business for immigrants because you can still sell something and make some money even if you don’t have a degree or have perfect English,” Sean Basinski, director of The Street Vendor Project, an organization working to obtain legal representation and better rights for vendors. “Our biggest problems include access to licenses and permits, finding areas to vend, fines that go up to $1000 and harassment to vendors by the health department.”
Basinski said that if more education and rational fees were implemented, food vending and inspection would be smoother. El Ashkar just hopes he can support his family.
“I pay $950 for rent in New Jersey and I come because I like work, I have some structure at least but getting money for my bill and my family is not easy,” the vendor said.