Selling Street Eats: A Labor of Grub

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New York City’s annual Vendy Awards took place this weekend, which means we at MainStreet finally have an excuse to write about the cheap food we actually eat all week long.

For those who don’t know, the Vendys celebrate the best street food in the city. Just because they don’t own a restaurant doesn’t mean their food isn’t top notch. This year’s finalists were judged by industry bigwigs like Bobby Flay and their cuisine covers a range of ethnicities. There’s Schnitzel & Things, which won best newcomer, Rickshaw Dumpling and Jamaican Dutchy, to name a few… not to mention sweeter fare like Wafels & Dinges, which won best desert. The overall winner was Country Boys, a Brooklyn-based taco cart run by Fernando and Yolanda Martinez.

If you want to know what a day in the life of a successful street vender is like, just check out the Twitter page of one of the finalists. Schnitzel & Things’ feed is filled with postings about relocating their food truck daily, closing early because of gas shortages, and even occasional run-ins with the law. “Today we got a ticket from a meter maid for $115, and then this cop came and told us he's getting it dismissed!! This officer eats for free!”

While these venders may just be a quick eats destination for some, they are also a desirable job option for the growing number of unemployed. You get to be your own boss, serve whatever dish you love most, and spend time outdoors. The question is whether or not this is a viable job option for most of us.

The short answer is it depends on where you live. In New York City, street vending opportunities are limited by the number of permits available. There are currently 850 general vending permits and 3000 food specific permits allotted for the entire city (these limits are meant to prevent the streets from being too cluttered). As the New York Times reports, this has led to a quasi black market where venders with permits sell them at a premium for as much as $12,000.  The average daily take for a food cart in New York is only $250-$300, though a successful cart can pull in many times that.

The city council is considering legislation that would increase the number of permits to around 15,000, but in the meantime, there are four choices: move to a different city, put your name on a long, long waiting list, find 12,000 bucks, or join the army (thanks to a loophole in city law, military vets face fewer restrictions).

Other smaller cities have a lower bar to entry. In Jacksonville, for example, you can get a year’s permit for $250 without too much hassle. The biggest restriction is that you have to be heavily insured.

However, if you are unable to secure one of these coveted permits, there is another option. You can apply to sell food during street fairs. All you need for that is a temporary permit which is much easier to secure. Best of all, it’s cheap, just $10 per month. Consider it a down payment before you make this your full time career.

Once you have a right to sell, the rest is just good business. Grab a good location, think of an original name and most importantly, get good ingredients. That’s the advice of previous Vendy champ, Samiul Haque Noor of Sammy’s Halal, “I go far, far away to get my spices; if it’s not right, I go farther; even if I have to go to Jersey, I go to Jersey,” he told New York Magazine.

Remember though that at its best, being a street vendor is a labor of love; at its worst, it’s just a labor. The Street Vendor Project, a non-profit organization, reminds prospective vendors that there are more than 10,000 vendors selling goods legally (and illegally) in New York City alone, and most are lucky just to break even.

Still, do everything right and you might be a Vendy winner one day, too.

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