Street Fight: War escalates as merchants seek to oust pushcarts they see as unfair competition

May 4, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Paula Katinas

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BAY RIDGE — Storeowners who have a gripe with food vendors escalated their war against the sidewalk sandwich shops by taking over a prime location for a protest demonstration Monday.

“We’re going to be here until the city does something about these food carts,” said Tony Gentile, owner of LoneStar Bar & Grill, who was standing behind a table he set up on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, where a halal food cart usually stands.

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The food vendor had to abandon the location because Gentile and a group of merchants calling their group “Save Our Streetscapes,” or SOS, decided to take over the spot to protest what they said is the inequity of the city’s rules regarding food establishments.

The city’s rules are unfairly slanted toward food vendors, Gentile charged.

Unlike brick-and-mortar eateries, sidewalk food vendors do not pay exorbitant rents, or face excessive fees and fines, Gentile said.

“Brick-and-mortar restaurants have letter grades that the Department of Health makes them put in the front window. These food guys don’t have to worry about letters,” he said.

Food vendors should be treated the same as restaurants because they are restaurants, SOS members said.

“Food carts have evolved into kitchens on wheels that operate on the sidewalks using grills fueled by gas and propane tanks with illuminated signage. These are stationary businesses with as many as three employees per shift, operating 20 hours per day. This is a big, well-organized business that takes place on a public sidewalk using the amenities, sidewalk cleaning services and street furniture paid for by assessments levied to property/business owners,” a statement issued by SOS read.

The area where the protest took place is located within the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). The property owners on Fifth Avenue, who pay an added assessment on their real estate taxes, fund the BID.

First thing Monday morning, the storeowners set up a table and sold newspapers, magazines and cookbooks, invoking their First Amendment rights. They also distributed literature for their “take back the streets” cause.

The merchants found support from local residents like Conor Rogers, who said he’d like the food vendors to go away.

“They’re out here all night. I can’t get any sleep because car service drivers drive up to buy food from them and keep their car radios blaring. You can also hear the food cart guys chopping their meat up,” he said.

The restaurant owners also have the support of Community Board 10.

Two weeks ago, Board 10 went on the offensive against the food vendors, calling on the city to tighten the regulations governing the mobile eateries.

“The public theater around food carts in Bay Ridge and throughout New York City will continue for some time until and unless the city of New York enacts clear and meaningful guidelines concerning the licensing, regulation and placement of food ‘carts’ on city streets,” Board 10 Chair Joanne Seminara said. “I use the term ‘carts’ lightly, as we have come to regard some of the carts as ‘stationary restaurants’ that in some months take up almost round-the-clock residence on our sidewalks,” Seminara said.

Food vendor Islam Bauiomy, seated on a bench on 86th Street across from the protest, disputed charges that his business is hurting restaurants.

“I serve food that nobody sells here,” he said, referring to his selection of Middle Eastern food. “What restaurant around here sells my kind of food?”

Bauiomy, who normally operates his food cart every day, was displaced by the protest.

“I’ve been doing business here for five years. How come, all of a sudden, they’re saying something? Nobody had a problem with me before,” he said. “I work. I have a family. I pay taxes. I have seven employees. You can’t say I take away jobs. I give people jobs.”

Mauiomy pointed to a food cart operating 15 feet from him on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 86th Street.

“It’s not blocking a restaurant. It’s in front of a bank,” he said.

The cart stood outside a Chase Bank.

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