end in Sight for met food-card gridlock News

| 26 May 2015 | 01:47

The food-cart gridlock in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art may finally be coming to an end.

More than two dozen food carts regularly set up shop there, resulting in a congestion of hot dog, halal and pretzel offerings beyond the permitted levels of two per block. An NYPD officer has told vendors of an impending crackdown, vendors say, leaving many to lament an ambiguous regulatory system determining just who can sling the ubiquitous NYC street cuisine in front of the iconic museum.

An April 9 ruling by a state appellate court held that the sidewalk in front of the museum should be governed by the same two-per-block rule that applies to the rest of the city.

A spokesperson for the city Law Department said on May 26 that a crackdown on vendors violating that limit could well come in the near future. However, the city is currently focusing on outreach to vendors so as not to surprise them when action comes. A recent meeting at a neighborhood police precinct was one example cited by a Law Department spokesperson of the ample warning and education offered to the vendors.

Most of the street carts in front of the museum are operated through food licenses issued to military veterans, who lease them to cart owners. That arrangement particularly irks one longtime vendor who secured the legal victory which allowed veteran-owned businesses to operate in front of the museum.

“I opened up the streets,” said Dan Rossi, a disabled Vietnam War veteran who has fought the city and museum for years to keep his vending space in front of the museum. “The problem is the veterans that I worked so hard to help have leased their permits to street vendors and those street vendors are using that permits as if they are veterans.”

Business can be lucrative in front of the museum, not least because of the dearth of food options across Fifth Avenue from the museum. The competition has prompted vendors like Rossi to regularly sleep in his cart in order to guard his position, he said.

Air Force veteran Vincent Luckett, who sat behind one food cart on May 21 as another man did the cooking, said the city rules are almost impossible to decipher.

“This whole thing is shot. It’s too confusing, he said.

But he added that a crackdown could triple profits for the remaining carts. “A bad day here is like a good day somewhere else,” he said.

A museum spokesperson declined to comment, referring questions to the city. The Parks Department and NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

A 19th-century state law mandates that military veterans be allowed to sell “goods” on the street. While there had been no limit on general vending, permits issued by the city Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — which oversees the sale of food on city streets — had limited the overall number of veteran food vending licenses until Rossi prevailed in court more than a year ago.

About ten military veterans were operated in the vicinity of the museum on a recent weekday. Some of them would not speak on the record but acknowledged the practice of leasing their licenses for undisclosed daily prices. Some veterans await calls from food cart bosses who might employ them on a day-to-day basis, some said. But their greatest utility resides in remaining on-scene in case police or inspectors demand to see a valid license.

Rossi said he was ready to combat yet another attempt to dislodge him from the space where he has operated for years. His two carts were the only ones in front of the museum which appeared to have bona fide veterans working. Barbara Morris toiled away at one of them. She is currently fighting the city to have the license of her deceased husband, a Navy veteran, transferred to her name, she said.

The intent of giving food licenses to military veterans was to benefit those who served their country and their family, according to Morris. Yet, the current city attitude to enforcing relevant regulations on food carts can have the opposite result, she said in an email.

“There’s no connection between the vendor and the permit. The leaser of the permit who hires the vendor at less than minimum wage is the operator of a shadow business. That person has absolutely no accountability to the governmental agencies involved with taxes, violations, insurance, etc. it’s nothing more than racketeering and it’s being done with the city’s permission,” she said.