Food Trucks in Limbo After Health Department Sticker Snafu
LOWER MANHATTAN — Food vendors across the city are unable to get the permit they need because the Department of Health failed to order enough new inspection permits to stick on food trucks and pushcarts this spring.
It may take the DOH as long as five months to get the needed permits, because of what was likely a “back-office mix-up” at the agency, department spokesman Levi Fishman said.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened,” he said. "A purchase order may not have been numbered correctly.”
Without the rectangular decals, the Department of Health is postponing annual permit renewal inspections for vendors who hold citywide, borough-specific, green cart or temporary permits.
Fishman said the agency would send vendors a notice within the next two days to let them know that all trucks with permits that expire between March and July will automatically have the permits extended through the end of August.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to new food trucks or those making major changes to their trucks, which would require a new permit rather than a renewal.
Vendors are required to renew their permit each year based on an expiration date the agency gives them, which is clearly marked on the sticker. Without an up-to-date inspection permit, vendors can be ticketed and potentially lose their permit to operate — something food cart owners and their advocates fear is now a risk because of the snafu.
“This is a situation that has the potential to get a little a hairy," said Matthew Shapiro, a staff attorney with the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center.
"If vendors actually get a letter from the DOH, and they can show that to police if they’re questioned about an expired permit, I hope that keeps them from getting ticketed — but it's possible they'll get a ticket and incur a long string of hardships, of dealing with courts, just because of the DOH’s mistake.”
Levi said the NYPD, the DOH's inspectors and the Office of Trials and Hearings, which deals with street food vendor violations, have been notified of the issue, adding “no vendors will be penalized for this error.”
Some vendors, however, said they feel like they’ve already been hurt by the city's mistake.
“We’ve just been dumbfounded that the DOH didn’t have a plan in place to fix this,” said the manager of a food truck who asked that the name of her business be withheld. “We went to them more than two weeks ago, trying to get a new inspection sticker, and they just kept telling us different things — the permits were on the way or they were still trying to figure out what to do.”
Without an up-to-date inspection permit, the manager said she's been too afraid to head out on the road.
“It is so tough to get a food truck license, and there’s no way we want to jeopardize that, especially since we still have no idea when or how we’ll get a new permit,” she said. “And, it’s been such a brutal winter. And now, when the weather is finally starting to turn around, the DOH is making us deal with this.”
Shapiro, from the Street Vendor Project, said the DOH has had similar problems with not ordering enough permits in the past.
"You'd think, by now, they'd figure out an easy way to quickly handle this mistake," he said.