In Flushing, Doubts on Food Vendor Bills

A food vendor in Flushing (Photo via World Journal)

A food vendor in Flushing (Photo via World Journal)

[Editor’s note: A package of bills to reform street vendor regulations was introduced at the New York City Council on Oct. 13. The bills, among other things, seek to double the number of food vendor permits over seven years and allow more New Yorkers to make a living by serving street food. But in Flushing, where street food vendors concentrate, the news got a mixed reception. In the following story, Shuhan Yu of World Journal reports on reactions to the bills.]

The bills that were introduced at the City Council on Oct. 13 seeking to double the number of food vendor permits are enthusiastically cheered by the Hispanic community. But some Chinese food vendors take it with indifference. They say that so many non-Chinese vendors started trying to secure vendor permits long before the Chinese. So even when the quota is increased, “we still won’t be able to get one.”

Agustina Vasquez, an ice cream vendor in Harlem, said she hope the bills will be passed by the council as soon as possible. “We are inundated by tickets. To get a permit is crucial to us.” Vasquez’s reaction contrasted sharply with that of Peter Xie, a barbecue vendor who has been working at the intersection of 38th Avenue and Main Street in Flushing for almost two years.

On the day the bill was introduced, Xie got a phone call from a friend, inviting him to go to City Hall to learn more details about this good news. Xie, who was serving barbecue to his customers at the time, listened to the friend half-heartedly. When he hung up the phone, Xie shook his head and sighed: “Even if they are giving 1,000 more permits, it won’t make any difference to me.”

Xie works for a Chinese who rents a permit from a third person on the black market. On the days when weather permits, he can make $100. He said the Hispanic vendors started fighting for permits much earlier than the Chinese, and many of them have already been on the waiting list. “Even if we apply (for a permit), we won’t be able to get it,” he said.

Xie said what he cares more about is the inspections from the Department of Health. Recently he got a ticket with a $400 fine because the water didn’t flow well in the water sink of his push cart. “Every time they (the inspectors) come, they won’t leave without issuing a ticket. I got $4,000 in fines over the past three months,” Xie said.

Mr. Liu, a vendor selling kebabs on 39th Avenue, said he couldn’t find other jobs because he doesn’t speak English. Being a vendor is a hard life, but that’s the only way for him to make ends meet. Before he realized it, he’d been selling kebabs for eight years. “In the early years, there weren’t so many food vendors in Flushing. Now every street here is packed with food vendors,” said Liu.

Liu said his push cart (which carries the permit) belongs to a veteran. It was then sold on the black market to someone who then leased it to Liu’s Chinese boss for $3,500 per month. Liu said it is a tough business. Every month, he is fined about $2,000 for violations related to food temperature or hygienic issues.

Carol Mu, who sells Xinjiang-style chicken stew and kebabs in the New York Food Court, said before she signed the $7,000 per month lease for his current shop, she had thought about selling food on the street. But she gave up the idea because she couldn’t get a permit. Now with a small shop, Mu has to charge 50 cents more than the street price of $1.50 for her kebabs. But she said the quality of her food is better and it doesn’t pollute the air in the community.

[Editor’s note: Indeed, air pollution as well as other hygienic problems have made the food vendor stands in Flushing a community nuisance, as Shuhan Yu found in the second story.]

Flushing has become a food haven in the recent years, with the increase of not only new restaurants but also street food vendors. While 38th, 39th, Sanford Avenues and Bowne Street are lined with food vendors, across the street from New York Food Court, Roosevelt Avenue is also occupied by push carts. Some community leaders think Flushing is saturated with food vendors. And residents and businesses have been complaining about air pollution and the littering brought by food stands over the past decade.

Talking about the new bills, Council member Peter Koo of Flushing said the extra permits should be distributed based on the specific situation of a neighborhood. “There are more than 20 food vendors in Flushing already. The sidewalks for pedestrians are affected. The new permits should be distributed to the neighborhoods where there aren’t as many food vendors,” said Koo. “More food vendors in Flushing would be unfair to the businesses that lease stores.”

Koo said the inspectors from the Department of Health and the New York Police Department don’t come here very often. Nearby businesses and residents complain frequently about the air pollution caused by the smoke from food stands.

For example, the Chase Bank on Main Street has complained that the smoke from the barbecue vendors seeps into its office via the ventilation system, and affects the eyes of its employees. An accounting firm on 38th Avenue also complained about the same issue. Residents living in Baili Tower and Sanford Tower also have been complaining about the smoke from food vendors for a decade.

Koo said the intention of the council members who proposed the bills is to do a favor to new immigrants. But they never thought about the consequences. “These bills are only able to help a small portion of people,” he said. And those who know how to navigate the system would apply for the permits and then rent them out to others.

Dian Yu, executive director of the Flushing Business Improvement District, said to allow more food vendors would be unfair to other small businesses. Street vendors dump their garbage into public dumpsters, occupy public benches and spill [cooking] oil on the sidewalks. All of these make them a headache to businesses nearby. Many businesses including the Subway Café on 39th Avenue and Dabo Eyewear on Kissena Boulevard have complained to the BID that the public dumpsters outside of their shops are often crammed with the garbage from street vendors.

Peter Tu, director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, said Flushing was designated as a small town by city planning, but now it has already grown into a mid-size city. The streets in the neighborhood are overwhelmed by the rapidly growing population. “Although more permits mean less illegal vending, they will make the sidewalks more jammed,” said Tu. He urges the city to strictly enforce the sidewalk regulations.   

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