(Besides the 3,100 full-time permits, the city also issues 1,000 for summer vending, and another 1,000 for fresh produce carts.)
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from entering the business, a rush that’s aided, paradoxically, by the city itself. The city’s health department has licensed roughly 19,000 people to handle street food, Dunn says, even though it’s capped the number of permits available for them to sell it.
That’s left thousands of halal cooks, taqueros, and hawkers with an unenviable choice. To make a living, they have to risk the legal consequences of working without a permit—confiscation, $1,000 fines, or even arrest, in the infamous case of Brooklyn’s churro lady. Or they go underground, and illegally rent permits at exorbitant rates that drain their savings, and keep enterprising entrepreneurs, some looking to establish their own permanent restaurants, cart-bound.
“You’re kind of trapped between street crime and state violence,” Dunn said. “It’s almost like a worse version of the medallion system for taxis,” referring to the system that New York City uses to limit its supply of yellow cabs, and which is also corrupted by predatory lending. The new law aims to curb that black market by requiring new permit-holders to be physically present at their food cart or truck. It will retroactively apply to permits already issued beginning in 2032.