News: CJ Exclusives

Raleigh Ordinance Could Sideline Street Food Vendors

New rules would expand territorial limits, set earlier curfew

RALEIGH — Hot dog vendors in downtown Raleigh say an ordinance now before the City Council could put all of them out of business.

Although the ordinance acknowledges street vendors “enliven the pedestrian environment by providing convenience and diversity of products at affordable prices,” and “lend charm and vitality to an active urban environment,” it is packed with what one vendor calls “industry-killing” rules.

Vendors are most worried about a rule that would prohibit pushcart vendors from locating within 100 feet of any restaurant, bar, or other establishment selling “consumable” food.

“That’s pretty much all of downtown Raleigh,” said Cary Squires, owner of Groovy Dogs. “It would completely obliterate everyone’s business.”

By Squires’ calculations, two locations “might” still be available to pushcart vendors, and they’re directly in front of and behind the Wake County Courthouse. Limiting vendors to those spots would put more than 20 entrepreneurs out of business and dozens more people out of a job, he said.

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said “about 90 percent” of the city’s hot dog vendors could be impacted by the ordinance. However, she said, the city intends to remove vendors “only if a restaurant complains.”

If the ordinance passes, Squires might not be allowed to renew the permit for his main daytime location — between the Museum of History and the Museum of Natural Sciences — because a café operates on the fourth floor of the Museum of Natural Sciences. His three most popular nighttime locations — in front of Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub and Mosaic Wine Lounge — also would be at risk.

Darren West, owner of Penalty Box Dogs, said his location on the corner of Hargett and Fayetteville streets could be eliminated because of a café inside the Wachovia Bank building. He wasn’t sure if CVS pharmacy across the street was considered a seller of “consumable food.”

“The rule is too vague,” West said. “Depending on how it’s enforced, we could all be out of business.”

All the power to decipher and enforce the rules will be in the hands of Zoning Inspector Robert Pearce, West said.

“I could ask Robert how the rule pertains to me and he might say, ‘You guys are fine,’ even though realistically we shouldn’t be, but maybe because he likes us, we’re OK,” West said.

Squires also is worried about the potential for selective enforcement.

Other rules

Even if the 100-foot rule didn’t run hot dog vendors out of town, there are several others that could, Squires said. The new rules require pushcart operators locate no closer than two feet from a curb while leaving five feet of unobstructed sidewalk behind the cart — and seven feet on the Fayetteville Street Mall. Squires says few sidewalks in downtown Raleigh are wide enough to satisfy those requirements.

Another rule would force hot dog vendors — some of whom have been in the same place for more than a decade — to rotate locations every three years, using a lottery system to decide who gets the most popular spots.

“I’ve built up a reputation in those locations for years and now suddenly someone new would have the right to everything I’ve worked hard for,” Squires said. He adds that a rule forcing vendors to close at 3 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. “would cut [him] off at the knees.” It is during that last hour of business, he said, that he makes most of his money while providing a “valuable service” feeding restaurant managers, bartenders, cab drivers and police officers, who have no other options when they get off work.

The ordinance also would increase the cost of permits from $60 to $250 and limit vendors to purchasing permits for no more than three locations.

Reasons for the rules

The Law and Public Safety Committee’s recent report on street vending notes “the current ordinance gives pushcarts more protection from other pushcart competition than retail shop-front businesses have from pushcarts.”

While no more than two hot dog vendors are allowed to set up in a single city block, restaurant owners are not protected from vendors parking right in front of their doors, said Baldwin, chair of the committee. To remedy the situation, the committee recommended the 100-foot buffer zone.

Baldwin spoke with CJ in more depth about the issue in September:

“You want to balance what’s good for the entrepreneur with what’s good for your restaurant owners,” she said. “You can imagine if you were a restaurant owner who was paying a lot more in taxes and you have a hotdog vendor outside your door, you’re not going to be happy about that.”

The only complaint about street vendors competing with full-service restaurants was made by “a sports bar on Glenwood South,” Baldwin said.

“What will happen is people will go into the sports bar, drink a couple of beers, go outside and get a hotdog and then come back in, instead of buying bar food,” she said

Baldwin also explained why the committee increased fees and capped the number of permits: “The city tried to make the permit affordable for budding entrepreneurs, but it had unintended consequences,” she said. “Vendors will buy up 10 spaces to eliminate competition and then move their cart from space to space.”

Squires, who has permits for 14 locations, said vendors have to try out several locations before they know which ones are good for business.

“You kind of have to go from place to place, to place, to place to follow the people.”

He said he plans not to renew four of the permits, where business is slow.

The committee’s report notes that the reason for giving the hot dog vendors and earlier curfew is to minimize “loitering after the bars close at 2 a.m.”

Baldwin said the committee would consider a compromise curfew of 3:30 a.m.

City council was scheduled to vote on the ordinance Jan. 4, but as a result of Squires’ public comments at the meeting and the attendance of several other hot dog vendors, Mayor Charles Meeker sent the legislation back to committee for reworking.

The vote is scheduled for Feb. 1.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.