Handcuffed for Selling Churros: Inside the World of Illegal Food Vendors

Handcuffed for Selling Churros: Inside the World of Illegal Food Vendors


The hot dog carts that are synonymous with New York City street food are run mostly by men. So are the ice cream stands in Central Park, and the halal carts dishing out aromatic tins of chicken and rice in Midtown.

But just as much a part of New York City life, if harder to spot, are the female street vendors, who often hawk their wares from small pushcarts. They sell things like sliced mangos on busy street corners, churros on subway platforms and Italian ices outside of schools in warm weather, usually for a dollar or two.

A video of police officers handcuffing a woman selling churros on Friday in a subway station in Brooklyn has focused attention on this subset of street sellers, who generally work without permits or permanent locations. That puts them at risk of fines, property confiscation and arrest.

Their decision to work illegally, those who study street vendors say, is linked to a broader problem: It is practically impossible to get a permit for mobile food vending in New York City, except on the black market. In that booming, male-dominated economy, $200 city-issued permits, good for two years, can easily rent for upward of $25,000 each.

The woman’s detention was also part of a string of recent incidents posted to social media that some say highlight aggressive policing in the subways, even as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo calls for 500 more officers to join the force. On Monday afternoon, another woman was arrested after selling churros at a different station in Brooklyn. The police said she had two outstanding warrants, for prior summonses for selling unlicensed food.

Edward Delatorre, the chief of the Police Department’s transit bureau, said a common theme was that people refused to cooperate with the police.

“When people don’t follow our requests or commands, there’s a potential for escalation,” Chief Delatorre said at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting on Tuesday.

The city limits the number of citywide mobile food vending permits to 2,900 — a cap that has remained unchanged since 1983. Even though an additional 2,200 permits are issued for things like seasonal food selling and fruit and vegetable vendors, demand far exceeds supply.

Because of the permits’ scarcity, the market for them functions a bit like the taxi medallion market, said Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Street Vendor Project, which supports lifting the cap. Owners sometimes lease their permits to other vendors — mostly poor, immigrant families — for upward of 125 times the price, which can drive the vendors into debt.

This practice violates city Department of Health regulations, because the permits are nontransferable. As a result, Mr. Attia said, transactions are typically all-cash deals and no paperwork is exchanged, leaving the lessees particularly vulnerable.

Kabir Ahmed, a halal cart vendor profiled by The New York Times in 2017, for example, said he had paid $25,000 to lease his license.

“We think it doesn’t make any sense that they are able to get vending licenses, but not vending permits,” Mr. Attia said.

New York capped its wait-list for citywide permits in 2007, when there were 2,500 names on it, Mr. Attia said. So, vendors who have gone into business since then are likely leasing their permits. The Street Vendor Project estimates that some 20,000 vendors work on the city’s streets, more than half of whom sell food.

Immigration status is not a central factor limiting people’s access to their own permits, Mr. Attia added. Undocumented immigrants can get both mobile food vending licenses and permits, because only a tax identification number is required for them.

The City Council is considering legislation to gradually increase the number of mobile food vending permits over the next several years. Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. said on Monday that 29 Council members had signed on; his district includes the subway station, Broadway Junction, where the woman was handcuffed on Friday.

In the State Senate, Jessica Ramos of Queens has introduced a bill that would eliminate caps on the number of food and merchandise street vendors statewide. The legislation is similar to a recent law in California that largely legalized street selling.

“It’s about legalizing their small businesses,” Ms. Ramos said.

Opponents of issuing more permits, which include the restaurant industry and various business improvement district groups, say the changes would hurt brick-and-mortar storefronts and congest sidewalks. They want robust enforcement of the existing rules and more regulations dictating where street vendors can operate.

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not throw his weight behind adding permits in 2017, when an earlier version of the bill was considered in the City Council. He has since said he supports an increase.

Also in 2017, the city’s Department of Health warned that without additional sanitary commissaries to house food carts, and better enforcement of the smoke some of them produce, more carts could pose health challenges.

On Friday, several police officers surrounded Elsa Morochoduchi, a 43-year-old immigrant from Ecuador who was selling churros in a subway station, which is not permitted by the M.T.A. They handcuffed her, confiscated her cart and ultimately gave her a summons.

Mr. Attia said that he had later met with Ms. Morochoduchi and that she did not have a vending license or a permit for her churro cart. If she had both documents, she would have been able to sell on the street, but not in the station.

Yes. In October, the Urban Justice Center published what it believes is the first survey of female street vendors in New York. Of the 50 women surveyed, 36 were from Mexico or Ecuador, like Elsa. Their average age was 46, and most were the primary breadwinners in their families.

The vendors typically lived in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx, and 72 percent of them did not have vending permits. The women said the work could be dangerous, but some said they still preferred it over domestic or restaurant work, their other main employment options.

The issue is lightly researched, so it is impossible to know. On the lucrative, tourist-rich corners of Manhattan, mobile food vendors tend to be men. But in some immigrant neighborhoods, the majority of the sellers are women.

In Corona, Queens, for example, a Street Vendor Project survey in 2017 found that 79 percent of the vendors were women. The organization also found that women seem to be disproportionately penalized for street vending.

In 2018, 57 percent of the tickets for unlicensed mobile food vending were issued to women, according to data from the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. At the same time, only 22 percent of the 46,000 people who received mobile food vending licenses from 2000 to 2018 were female, the Street Vendor Project found.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Azi Paybarah contributed reporting.





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