Ice cream, of all things, is heating up tempers in Prospect Heights.
Last week, an uproar ignited on a discussion forum for Prospect Heights parents, where mothers complained about pushy ice cream vendors in parks and playgrounds. Now, the vendors are pointing fingers at one another too.
Kazi Uddin, a native of Bangladesh, had his New York City Department of Parks and Recreation sticker prominently displayed on his cart, certifying that he is a licensed food vendor.
“This costs my boss $8,000,” he said, gesturing toward the decal.
A simmering resentment from one ice cream vendor to the next is brewing in Prospect Park, and it all has to do with a sticker – or the absence of one. More than tempting kids with sinful treats or causing temper tantrums, some ice cream vendors have a problem with unlicensed vendors underselling them on the price.
Uddin, who sells ice cream and hot dogs on the corner of 7th Street and Prospect Park West, is still bristling over the unlicensed pushcart vendor who had left the vicinity nearly a half hour earlier. He says illegal vendors, who sell basic flavors from pushcarts, do not pay the licensing fee and can get away with only charging $1 for ice cream, while his cheapest item is $2, and up to $4 for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bars.
While 83 percent of an estimated 10,000 unlicensed vendors in New York City are immigrants, according to Street Vendor Project and the Urban Justice Center, they are also well represented among the regulated vendors. Brandishing a Good Humor rocket ship to his next little customer, Uddin said he immigrated to the United States on a green card lottery eight years ago and recently obtained his U.S. citizenship. He does not understand why some other immigrants are not obeying the law.
“They just come here and say, $1, $1 for ice cream!” Uddin said, virtually stealing customers from under his nose.
Vickie Karp, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, says that licensed vendors, once they obtain their permit to vend in the park, have to sign a five-year contract acknowledging that the Department of Parks and Recreation can not take full responsibility for illegal vendors. “We clearly state that there could be competition around you,” she explained.
Aside from paying the Department of Health a total of about $300 in fees for a two-day food safety course, as well as for the required ID. In addition to the initial DCA fees, prospective vendors have to solicit a license to sell anything in New York City’s parks. These licenses are limited and there is no price ceiling on the bid. Once a vendor has a license, he or she can operate several stands in different parks.
“The fees are for a public service,” Karp said.
Karp explained that the bids, valid for five years, can reach multiples of thousands because the department auctions a limited number of vending licenses and issues the license to the highest bidder. But with unemployment rates doubling for native-born and immigrant New Yorkers alike since 2008, foregoing a license and selling wares ad hoc and on the cheap in parks and in the streets may become an even more attractive option – for both vendors and customers.
Although the parks service has mobile crews that monitor children’s playgrounds, Karp emphasizes that illegal ice cream vending is a law enforcement issue, especially on playgrounds, where adults unaccompanied by a child are not allowed to enter. Karp explained that enforcing far-reaching measures to curb illegal ice cream vendors on all 1,800 of New York City’s playgrounds would be a huge expense for taxpayers.
Added to the expense of enforcement, the fines are hard to collect. New York City has collected only $900,000 out of the $15.8 million in fines levied in 2009, while spending $7.4 million on enforcement, according to a New York City Independent Budget Office report in 2010.
“It’s for those very screaming mothers. We should be fixing the swings for when their kids are not eating ice cream,” Karp said. “But if there are complaints, we would love to have a chance to answer them.”
Meanwhile, the hidden ice cream war in Prospect Park continues. Uddin pointed toward the next park entrance in front of the playground on the corner of 9th Street, about two blocks away.
“That’s where he headed,” he said, referring to the “pushcart vendor” he had recently spotted nearby.
Stationed at the entrance to the playground, the no-frills ice cream vendor was handing a small cluster of kids vanilla cones and accepting crumpled up dollar bills in return. The vendor, who spoke both English and Spanish, did not want to give his name.
“I do not want to talk,” he said. “I respect your job, please respect mine.”
CORRECTION: All food vendors, including ice cream trucks, need a Health license. They do not need a DCA license.