The stories behind NYC street permits

Reported by Efua A-H Owusu and Alex Calderwood

Two kids pick up lunch from their favorite halal vendor. They’ve been coming to the cart ever since they can remember. The owner knows their orders, piling on white sauce just as they like it, as he says, “too much”.

According to The Street Vendor Project, over 7000 street vendors in New York City are jailed every year for violating vending regulations in the city.

However, street vending permits have been capped for most people for over a decade. The caps affect both food and general street vendors. Currently, the only vendor groups that can access permits are disabled veterans, and vendors who sell on private property.

Our story starts in the Upper West Side on 87th and Broadway where we meet Egyptian food vendor Ahmed Sherif.

42-Year-old street food vendor Ahmed Sherif tells of his love for cooking.

After Ahmed’s dreams of becoming an engineer failed, he turned to food vending. He is one of the thousands of food vendors who relies on the streets to make a living. He says the business helped him to get out of student debt. Here’s a little more about Ahmed’s background.

Food vendor permits in New York City have been capped since 1991. There is a long waiting list for anyone who wants to sell food. One can always get a license which gives you a food handling certificate, but, a permit to sell food has not been issued in decades, and many food vendors are heavily reliant on a black market where people sometimes rent food permits and trucks for as much as $25,000. The permits issued by the city cost $200 to be renewed every two years.

In 2016 a new street vending modernization act was launched. The aim of the act is to have vendor permits doubled by the year 2022. A year on, there have been no updates on the release of new vendor permits, and the New York City, Department of Consumer Affairs is tight-lipped on any developments. Several calls and email exchanges with the city yielded no results.

Though there are so few of these permits issued by the city at any time, some vendors do have there own. In Astoria, a community of predominately Greek street food has appeared. Andrea Velis owns a souvlaki truck called The Roadside Grill, the latest in his food truck enterprise that includes four trucks and a garage/kitchen.

Velis’ story is not alone in Astoria. The street food community is close-knit, in addition to just being close. On the same corner sits a halal food cart, and just up the street is a similar looking food truck, also selling traditional Greek fare.

Another Astorian Greek food truck, Souvlaki King. Usually, it is parked just a few blocks from The Roadside Grill.

And if you have ever bought anything on the streets of New York City. You have probably purchased a product from someone who does not have the legal right to sell. We talk to Frank Brown, a Vietnam war army veteran who tells us how street vending in New York started with African immigrants.

There is a common theme running through these stories, as many vendors have experienced difficulty in procuring permits and dealing with city government. Various methods of dealing with these problems have arisen, from the black market permit vending, to the legislation focused Street Vendor Project.