The Illegal Black Market Behind New York's Food Carts

By Mike Pomranz |

© Owen Franken/Corbis

When you hit up a New York City food cart for a coffee, breakfast sandwich or (depending on how much you value your life) hot dog – and I’m talking the smaller portable “carts,” not one of these flashy newfangled “food trucks” – you probably never found yourself thinking, Wow, this guy must be really killing it out here.  The life of a food vendor working the crowded New York streets just looks tough: battling the weather and curt New Yorkers to sling inexpensive food items to as many customers as you can.

But according to a recent expose in Crain’s New York Business, one of the hardest parts of food cart life is what we can’t see: A decentralized black market consisting of a fixed number of permit holders illegally renting use of their permits to people, typically immigrants, looking to make an honest buck but who are seeing their income squeezed thanks to the increasing cost of these underground fees.


Though the 4,000 word piece has plenty of revealing moments, what Crain’s ultimately uncovers is a city government-controlled system intended to regulate food carts that instead has devolved into an unregulated mess. Simply put: The city only allows 3,000 mobile food vendor permits, at a cost of only $200 per two year period; but by limiting the number of permits, the city has unwittingly incentivized people who have permits to never relinquish them and instead illegally “rent” them to someone else, typically at a cost of $20,000 or more. Unfortunately, outside of simply enforcing the law, the city has little incentive to try to crack down on the black market since the government gets the same cut either way. And the people getting hurt? Those poor food vendors who are stuck shelling out a huge cut to the actual permit holder.

For the record, Crain’s does mention that the city has occasionally tried to enforce the rules with stings or other crackdown efforts, but it’s done little to change the system. And it’s a problem the City Council has been looking to address for “more than a year,” albeit to no avail yet.

As it stands, “The black market preys upon working-class immigrants, discourages entrepreneurship and has done nothing to foster financial security,” writes Crain’s Jeff Koyen. Who knew simply selling hot dogs was such a complicated endeavor?


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