Political Indigestion: Castagna Probe Leaves Food Trucks’ Plight in Limbo

Photo: Steve Gold

Two Fridays ago, news of a yet another corruption probe, this time led by the Jersey City Police Department, broke (almost satirically) on the same day City Hall held an ethics workshop.

Joseph Castagna, the resigning city health official arrested by the FBI in July, is being investigated for potentially issuing more than 100 illegal food vendor permits — a startling twist in the strange-as-fiction Pushcart Wars plaguing the city for the past few years.

A Battle Brews

For some food vendors, a grueling fifteen hour day leaves only two shots, lunchtime and dinner, to make it all worthwhile.

Just around noon they come to claim their spots, transforming a barren, almost eerie business district into a lively makeshift street market, where vendors greet customers by name. Scents of Indian spices, sizzling tacos and homemade soups suffuse the otherwise cold, briny air howling in from the waterfront.

But on any given day, often at the very peak of lunch, a patrol car slinks ominously by.

“Forty minutes! I’m clocking you!” the officer snarls. That’s lunchtime’s fat lady singing. Hungry and bothered, the crowds disperse. Profitless, the vendors scuttle away.

According to city law, street vendors can stay up to forty minutes in one location and must remain 300 feet away from established eateries. But over the years, law enforcement has grown more lenient as pushcarts and food trucks became almost institutional to the city.

But at some point last year this slumbering, rarely enforced ordinance rose from the dead and began ravaging street vendors with fines and sweeping them out of time-honored locations.

“I’ve been here for four years and never had a problem, now suddenly they start cracking down,” Frank the Flowers* says. “There’s something going on, but when I go to shake the trees in City Hall, I get sent from one to the other.”

Other vendors wonder why a big-city police department is worrying about them in the first place.

“I think the police department has much better things to look into and deal with than other people making an honest living,” Morris the Florist* bemoans. “We are not selling drugs, just food.”

Still others point out the toll the stepped-up enforcement has on patrons.

“It’s wasting the time of the people who come to have lunch here, because they have to go somewhere else,” Chris, the owner of Lucinda Burritos & Tacos, says.

None of the vendors knew exactly why this was all taking place — but they all agreed about who was behind it — the local restaurants.

“They think we are taking their business, so they complain to the cops,” Mohamed Manzoor says, whose brother Abdul owns the Banana Leaf truck.

The economic downturn was likely the tipping point, as budget-minded folks began skimping on lunchtime luxuries, turning to food trucks who offer quality food at cheaper (and gratuity-less) prices. To leverage poor sales, restaurants could shin-kick their newfound competitors — the food trucks — by breathing life into this obscure zombie ordinance. The ensuing crackdowns have crippled street business and wracked the minds of vendors who feel more like vermin than small business owners.

But things weren’t always this way. There once was a time when restaurants and street vendors peacefully coexisted. Quick, cheap street grub in those days couldn’t compete with the culinary flair and high-quality service the restaurants could offer.

Fast-forward to the present: these food trucks aren’t the ones your daddy once knew. They can rival the eateries, utilizing large, commercial kitchens (which foster incredible culinary ingenuity), Twitter pages (providing foodies with regular location updates) and, for larger ones in New York and Los Angeles, even public relations firms.

Over the years, many city ordinances (in New York City, for instance) have evolved along with the food vendor’s entrepreneurial wit to manage the friction between the two interests. That has not been the case with Jersey City, whose ordinance governing “itinerant eating and drinking establishments” dates back to 1971. With the exception of a relatively minor amendment in May 2006, the bulk of it has remained unchanged.

Taking on City Hall

One vendor, Abdul Manzoor, decided to take a stand. He and his brother began showing up at City Council meetings, pleading to legislators to reform the ordinance. Doing so, they became de facto spokespersons for the others vendors, who until then, fearing repercussion, only bit their lips and blustered in the dark.

At several meetings since April 2008, the City Council said all the right things, as politicians are apt to do, but the vendor’s entreaties bore no real fruit. Council members were being pulled with equal force on both sides.

The restaurants cried that reform would unfairly rig the system in the vendors’ favor. Furthermore, they argued, by subsidizing the vendors, the city was only shooting itself in the foot, and would miss out on tax revenue (namely, sales tax) and other economic perks their eateries uniquely provide.

“It’s not fair, and it’s not fair for the township itself,” Abha Azrawal, who owns the downtown Indian restaurant Amiya, says. “We are paying sales taxes, we are paying rent. We provide a lot of employment for the township.”

She says that the city is absolutely right to enforce its tough food truck ordinance. But Frank the Flowers thinks that’s bologna — something he doesn’t happen to sell.

“We have our expenses too. The only thing is, we have found a way to sell cheaper than they are,” he says. “And at the same time, if you talk to the people, the food is not good at those restaurants and people love our food.”

None of the vendors have so little sympathy for the restaurants as Mohamed Manzoor, who used to own one, until rent inflation, not food vendors, drove him out of business. He owned, incidentally, a Banana Leaf on Lexington Avenue, where he waged in “healthy competition” daily with an Indian food vendor parked at the corner of his street.

“We could not tell him he was obstructing our business. If he did well, then he did well,” he reasons. “I had to be confident in what I am serving to the people. If restaurants make really good food, the customers will come.”

This political tug-of-war finally seemed to tilt in the vendors favor at the July 15 City Council meeting (notably the last meeting held before the FBI’s corruption net was cast).

Adbul Manzoor’s plea took on a whole new volume and light, now fortified by a petition — started not by the vendors themselves, but a city resident — which was distributed to each council member through City Clerk Robert Byrne. It raised eyebrows.

Niyant Dalal, a Jersey City resident, works for an international broker in Exchange Place. He first started noticing some food trucks disappearing in May. By June, they had become such a regular occurrence, it drove him to spark what he calls a “hyperlocal movement” by posting “Save the Food Trucks of Jersey City” at petitiononline.com and petitionspot.com.

“The food trucks are an essential part [of] Jersey City’s food landscape providing great food at affordable prices,” the petition, which has tallied 350 names thus far, reads. “In tough and uncertain times like these, shouldn’t we have only more of these options available to us?”

Triumph seemed imminent as the City Council set a September deadline for unveiling a new ordinance. A source from City Hall confirmed in early August that the city’s legal department was at work drafting a new ordinance, reviewing neighboring municipalities as templates.

But all of that has now gone up in smoke. With the news of the JCPD’s Castagna probe, the vendors’ plight is now in limbo.

“We are not in a place today to make any comprehensive change,” Ward E councilman Steven Fulop says. “That ordinance needs wholesale changes, ” instead of the “band-aid approach” the city was previously attempting, he insists.

At this week’s City Council meeting, Manzoor was back to see what kind of progress the city had made. Corporation counsel Bill Matsikoudis said there have been “some roadblocks” but the Law Department was working on something. “I’m hopeful that in the next 60 days we can come forward with a truly comprehensive ordinance,” he said.

The Counterfeiter

Castagna’s alleged dirty dealings are a watershed. Essentially, what he has done is turn the health department in a municipal mint, flooding the city’s streets with counterfeit permits, thereby depreciating the value of those legitimately obtained.

There’s substantial value in an itinerant license. A pushcart, for instance, might be worth about $1,000 on its own, but combined with an itinerant license it becomes a small annuity. It’s like putting a hotel on Baltic Avenue.

But, unlike in other cities, itinerant licenses do not designate spaces for food vendors. So, mobile as they are, they flock to where the money is. Downtown is now crawling with an absurd surplus of vendors. They have a difficult time finding profitable locations, not only within legal distance from restaurants, but within enough distance from each other.

“He started coming six feet behind me in Newport, which I did not like,” Frank the Flowers says of a food vendor who sells a similar style of cuisine. “If you want to make your identity go around the corner, but don’t stand behind me.”

This has created tension within the food truck community at the very time it needs unity to lobby for a revision of the ordinance.

For his part, Fulop proposes a way to help food carts thrive throughout the entire city — and perhaps bring in a bit more revenue for the city.

“The city should be taking an approach where we’re actually assigning vendors different locations, and selling those locations at rates that are consistent with what that location yields versus other ones,” he says.

City spokesperson Jennifer Morrill confirmed that’s just what the Law Department is working on — a process where vendors could bid on licenses for different locations around the city.

Aftermath

On Tuesday, Sept. 1, it came to light that Frank the Flowers’ permit was among the 100 illegal ones allegedly issued by Castagna.

He says that on Aug. 31 someone from the fire department made the rounds, and told him that he was only allowed to operate until his permit expired in January. After that, he was told he would not be able to reinstate, nor get reimbursed for, the $2,300 permit he purchased from the city.

“It’s not the people’s fault,” Frank says. “We came to the right place to get our permits.”

So what’s next for Frank? “Hallelujah, we sue!,” he exclaims.

To avoid the backlash of litigation, Fulop proposes an audit — which the city says it has already started — as a more deliberate way of dealing with illegal permit holders.

“The goal is to have all the vendors come in, and pick through when they were licensed and how they were licensed,” he says. “We need to understand who and where we want and how many, from there we need to recertify.”

As for Castagna, he has put in his request to resign. If his papers are approved, he’ll get a pension of $60,740 a year and one-time lump payment of $84,414. This, despite being under investigation on two fronts.

And there’s a lesson that surely wasn’t covered at the city’s recent ethics workshop — not only can crime pay, but it can offer a hefty pension.

* Frank the Flowers and Morris the Florist are both food truck operators who work in Jersey City; they asked for anonymity for fear of being targeted by the city and being further singled out by local restaurant owners. (For the names, a hat tip goes to Jean Merrill’s 1964 children’s book The Pushcart War.)

a Jersey-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Daily News, the New York Blade and Town & Country.