NYC: Food Truck Crackdown Spreads to Midtown East

On Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011, Taiwanese food truck Bian Dang set up shop along East 53rd Street Between Park and Lexington avenues. PHOTO CREDIT DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

By Mary Johnson |

On Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011, Taiwanese food truck Bian Dang set up shop along East 53rd Street Between Park and Lexington avenues. PHOTO CREDIT DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

MIDTOWN — When police began several months ago to enforce a decades-old rule that food trucks can’t park in metered parking spaces, a mass exodus began, with vendors heading east and south to avoid the long arm of the law.

But the crackdown has followed them, and the frustration is evident in the constant stream of Twitter and Facebook updates these trucks rely on to inform customers of their locations.

“NO MORE 52nd and LEX! Sorry…not our decision!” Eddie’s Pizza posted on Facebook on Thursday.

And at least two popular food trucks were taking action. A tweet from the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck on Thursday morning said that its owner was en route to visit an unnamed City Council member with a lawyer and Kim Ima of The Treats Truck.

Neither the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck nor The Treats Truck returned requests seeking comment.

Food trucks have taken a signficant hit as police enforcement has increased, said David Weber, 34, president of the NYC Food Truck Association and himself the owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling Truck.

His organization’s 31 members are reporting that sales are down 20 to 70 percent as a result, Weber said.

Most of those costs do not stem from police fines, but rather from having to move locations. Food trucks subsist largely off the lunchtime rush. Having to move locations can take up to two hours, between finding a new spot and setting up the truck, Weber said. That lost time equates to lost dollars. Also, moving around makes it harder for customers to find the trucks.

The law forcing these vendors out of metered parking spots dates to 1965, Weber said, and specifically forbids the vending of merchandise in those locations.

“Historically, food was not thought to be merchandise, in terms of the service component of food,” Weber said. “Our position is that the food isn’t merchandise.”

But the Supreme Court in Manhattan disagreed. In February, the court ruled that food was merchandise. The Street Vendor Project, which advocates on behalf of all street vendors in the city, appealed the ruling but lost in May, Weber said.

“Our goal before this case and after this case has been to work with the city to try and come up with a better way to incorporate food trucks into the social fabric of the city,” he said.

“It’s quite a challenging business to begin with,” Weber continued, adding that the metered parking issue is making it that much tougher.

As the food trucks have moved east, the East Midtown Partnership has also become involved in the enforcement efforts. Members of the partnership have been distributing information to food trucks in the area, informing them when they are in violation of the metered parking law.

On Thursday, a partnership representative stopped by Luke’s Lobster truck, which was stationed on Park Avenue between East 54th and East 55th streets, and handed the employees a map indicating all the places where they could not park the truck, said East Midtown Partnership president Rob Byrnes in an email.

The partnership representative also said that if Luke’s Lobster chose to remain in an illegal spot, the police could force the truck to move.

“As you no doubt know, Business Improvement Districts do not make the law,” Byrnes told the Midtown Lunch blog. “Nor do our security officers have police officer status. Therefore, we cannot ‘prohibit’ food trucks. We do, however, advise food trucks when they violate the law by vending from metered or otherwise illegal curbside spots.  At that point, the choice of compliance is up to them.”

By noon on Thursday, the truck was a block down, on Park Avenue between East 52nd and East 53rd streets, and Sam Leon, 23, who works in the truck, said Luke’s Lobster would stick it out. His goal was to make it through the lunch rush.

“There are so many businesses here that everyone can get customers,” Leon said.

Luke’s Lobster makes a point not to park in front of restaurants or places that serve food so there is no perceived competition, Leon said. And the spot they had chosen for the afternoon, smack dab in front of a towering office building, was good for business.

The spot is indeed a popular one. On that stretch of Park Avenue on Thursday, Taiwanese food truck Bian Dang attracted a line of customers that reached halfway down the block. Joyride sold coffee and frozen yogurt, and Rafiqi’s was churning out gyros and plates of chicken and rice.

For the past three and a half years, John Paul, owner of Papa Perrone’s food truck also called that neighborhood home. Paul, 41, held down a spot on East 55th Street between Madison and Park avenues, until he was booted recently.

“It’s aggravating,” Paul said. “I feed two children with this truck.”