Alleging unfair business practices, the Broadway Merchants Association recently filed a complaint with the New Haven Planning and Zoning Board, aiming to ban food carts from the Broadway area.
Although food carts are vital to areas of New Haven with limited dining options, such as Science Hill and the School of Medicine, Broadway retailers have been increasingly voicing concern to the city that they are on unequal ground to compete with the vendors. Bulldog Burrito owner Jason Congdon said he does not think the carts are held to as high of legal standards as retailers in New Haven.
“It is not that we are anti-carts, because they can legally exist and there are parts of the city where these carts serve a very important purpose with no restaurants around,” Congdon said. “But in areas like Broadway where rents are so high, the demands on the carts are incommensurate with the rest of us,” Congdon said.
Congdon also pointed to the contributions of local retailers to the city and to Yale, such as donations to local charities and student organizations. He said this enlarges the gap between what vendors and retailers pay to do business in New Haven.
“We tend to give more than we receive because we want the surrounding area to do well,” Congdon said. “But carts are all one-sided business, and as their business gets larger, our ability to contribute to the city goes down.”
But while some merchants oppose Broadway vendors, many of the food carts in the area are owned by New Haven restaurants, such as Mamoun’s, Thai Taste, and Roomba. Roomba owner Suzette Franco Comacho said she thinks the Planning and Zoning Board, which allows vendors to move freely about the city, should not make an exception for the Broadway area.
“Our burrito cart has been there for a couple of years now as an affordable alternative to Roomba, because that is what customers call for,” Camacho said. “I truly believe there is enough business for everybody in this city because people will eat what they are in the mood for, and we are simply offering one of many options.”
Katie McKinstry ’07 said she thinks food carts are a convenient and affordable alternative to local restaurants that should not be eliminated.
“There is no reason to forbid the competition just because the carts are doing so well,” McKinstry said. “The food is delicious and cheaper, and it’s nice for students to have the option.”
Paying only $200 per year for a vending permit as well as minimal maintenance, labor, and supply costs, food carts have a distinct advantage over local restaurants, who pay a rent upwards of 15 times the cart permit’s cost per month.
Vendors currently have the legal right to station themselves on any sidewalk in New Haven as long as they are at least 15 feet apart, five feet from the curb, and 50 feet away from any business selling a similar product, City of New Haven Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Pugh said.
“The city’s interest is in setting up an environment that works for everyone,” Pugh said. “We don’t want to bar vendors, who bring a sort of liveliness and vitality to the streets, but we also want to ensure the success of local businesses.”
Within the past few months, the city has made efforts to control the proliferation of food carts. As more and more venders have obtained licenses, the Livable City Initiative Building Division Permit and Licensing Center decided to consolidate the vending regulations into a single ordinance and commissioned public inspectors to conduct street inspections of carts it suspects are not in compliance with the regulations, removing the burden from the New Haven Police Department.
Management Committee of New Haven Vice Chairman Joseph Vollano said he is surprised Yale has not become involved in the cause, because the carts affect businesses that occupy space owned by University Properties, including Bulldog Burrito. Vollano, the manager of TYCO, is heading the initiative to review vending permits with the Planning and Zoning Board as a representative of Broadway merchants.
“This should mean a lot to Yale because it is taking business directly away from them,” Vollano said. “Because there are already restaurants in the Broadway area, it is kind of like they’re walking into their neighbor’s backyard and setting up shop.”
Because Yale does not own any of the sidewalks in New Haven, there is little the University can do to prevent vendors from stationing where they have a legal right to be, University Properties Associate Director Troy Resch said.
“We have been working as best we can to find a solution for merchants, who were the original stakeholders in New Haven,” Resch said. “At the moment, it is not exactly a level playing field, but there is very little anyone can do unless the laws are changed.”