Achieving the American dream has become an American impossibility for street vendors

Food vendor David Cardona says inflation hasn’t allowed him the ability to raise his prices while his expenses have skyrocketed.
Photo ET Rodriguez

Selling food on the streets of New York City is hardly an innovation. Food vending and open-air markets were established by the Dutch shortly after they arrived in the mid-17th century and until the advent of restaurants in the 1800s, it was the only method of getting food. People walked the streets of Lower Manhattan in search of butchered meats, fresh fish and oysters from the Hudson River, and even ready-to-eat foods like meat pies and hot corn.

Street food is woven into the historical fabric that makes New York City and remains a ubiquitous part of the landscape.

Much like the Dutch escaping religious persecution, there is a centuries-long tradition of people fleeing their own countries due to war and poverty for a chance at the American dream, with New York City as its beacon. People like Maria Falcon, who came to NYC in 2007  in order to provide a childhood for her daughters better than her own. 

“I was living extremely poor, that’s why I came. We didn’t have [anything] to eat. Once a month we would eat rice. We didn’t even know what it meant to eat meat,” says Falcon of her life in Ecuador.

When Falcon immigrated to New York, she made the tough decision of leaving her 12-year-old and nine-year-old daughters behind. She knew she would need time to accrue enough money before she could fully support them. So she rented a room in Queens and paid an agency to find her work. But after several months, she grew tired of waiting — seemingly paying for nothing — when she began food vending in 2008. Falcon gave birth to another daughter in 2009 and sometime between 2014 and 2015, she brought her daughters over from Ecuador to live with her.   

It was a mild afternoon in April and business as usual for Falcon, when she took a break from selling her sliced cucumbers and mangoes smothered in hot sauce and lime juice on the Broadway-Junction station platform in Brooklyn. She was sitting on a bench with one of her daughters, now 24, who came to check on her, as she occasionally does, when two NYPD officers arrested Falcon, detained her for two hours and summoned her to appear in court.

Falcon’s offense? Selling food on MTA property. But Falcon also had an expired food license and no permit to sell.

Olga Fernandez selling her fruits on the corner of 149th Street and Melrose Avenue. Photo ET Rodriguez

She says that when she tried to apply for a permit, “They told me that they haven’t given those out in years.”

The city has tasked the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) to oversee and regulate mobile food vendors and according to their rules and regulations, one must have both a license and a permit to legally operate. And while there is no limit on the number of licenses provided by the city, there has been a cap of 2,900 permits since the 1980s.

“The origins of these caps really come from a very xenophobic and anti-immigrant and frankly, racist background,” says Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project (SVP) which works to provide legal representation and advocacy to various marginalized groups of New Yorkers and is a subsidiary of the Urban Justice Movement. “There is no way to become a legal vendor in New York City.” 

According to the SVP, there are roughly 20,000 street vendors across New York City, most of which are immigrants and people of color.

On May 25, Mayor Eric Adams approved the Street Vendor Advisory Board’s (SVAB) report and beginning this July, 445 new permits will be distributed to mobile food vendors every year until 2032. However, that does not even begin to quell the thousands of applications currently on the waiting list or any future applications that will be filed within that 10-year period. Additionally, having the required paperwork does not guarantee security.

“I fear the Department of Health more than I do the police,” says Olga Fernandez, a mobile food vendor in the Bronx.

Fernandez, who spoke with the Bronx Times in Spanish, has both a license and a permit to sell her plethora of fruits on the corner of 149th Street and Melrose Avenue — she still gets fined almost every week.

The DOH states that the space a mobile food vendor inhabits cannot be greater than 5 feet by 10 feet. But Fernandez insists that’s not enough space for her to sell her goods, so she creates an extension of her table by propping several boxes on top of each other — a big no-no and punishable by a $1,000 fine.

Fernandez’s vendor permit also relegates her to a specific location, but her corner currently has a scaffold that makes it impossible to move her cart to the required six inches or less from the curb. And fines can range from $25-$1,000.

“[The DOH] told me, ‘every time we see you here, we will give you a ticket,’” she told the Bronx Times.  

Fernandez came to NYC in 1990 from Ecuador and channeled a familiar story of not having sufficient money or opportunity in her hometown. In the U.S., Fernandez immediately found work at a sewing factory where she remained for 18 years until a friend introduced her to a more “lucrative” means of work and self-employment: mobile food vending.

Her daily routine now consists of waking up at 3 a.m. to get ready for work; before 4 a.m. she is out the door. Fernandez must pick up her fruits from a wholesaler and her cart from a commissary on 144th Street and Park Avenue where she is required to leave it overnight for sanitization. Fernandez’s husband used to help her with boxes and would drive her to and from work, but since he died from COVID in 2020, she now has to pay someone $300 a week for the physical help even though she makes only $500 weekly, she said.

Fernandez works in the heavily foot trafficked area known as The Hub, a major commercial corridor in the South Bronx where hundreds of people bustle in and out of shops and sell goods on the street every day. The area is loud with storefronts advertising low prices and others proselytize with bullhorns on one of the five corners that make up the crowded intersection. Sometimes youngsters even run by Fernandez’s cart and steal a bag of fruit.

Despite it all, Fernandez says she likes her job.

But coupled with the fines, she now also faces the reality of the country’s highest rate of inflation since 1981. “A case used to cost me $12 to $14, now I pay $20,” Fernandez says while pointing at her bananas.

Alfonso Robles selling empanadas on the corner of 231st Street and Broadway. Photo ET Rodriguez

And street vendors don’t have much latitude to raise prices to adjust for their increased expenses. 

“The bread went up, the hot dogs went up, the mustard went up, the ketchup went up, the sauerkraut – all these things individually – but we can’t raise one more quarter on the hot dog,” says David Cardona, who has been selling hot dogs and shish kebabs from his cart for 15 years in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx.

Cardona is a friendly and energetic man who provides service with a smile. He came to New York from Mexico as a teenager in 1987 and grew up in the South Bronx. He worked as a line-cook for many years and became a mobile food vendor to fulfill his aspirations of running his own business. Cardona works on a corner famous for its kebabs on 152nd Street and Third Avenue in the Bronx. With his cart he can support his wife on disability and their four children, all of whom are under 21.

Despite his gregarious disposition, sometimes the feeling is not reciprocated and some customers can be demanding and downright demeaning.

“It’s like people look down on us,” Cardona says, as this reporter witnessed the verbal abuse first-hand.

However, Cardona does not let it get him down. “This is what I love,” he adds with enthusiasm.

On the northwest corner of 231st Street and Broadway in Kingsbridge Heights, Josefina Navarrete sells fresh-squeezed lemonade and she too is feeling the pangs of inflation.

“Before the pandemic, I used to pay $40 for a case [of plastic cups], now I pay $100,” she says in Spanish.

As a result, she has had to raise her price of a glass of lemonade from $4-$5 and has noticed a decrease in sales.

Navarrete emigrated from Mexico 25 years ago and sought a job that would accommodate her children’s school schedule because she could not afford childcare. Through acquaintances, she learned that she could create her own schedule with food vending and got her license, but was unable to obtain a permit and was fined $1,000 by the DOH last summer. Navarrete makes about $300 a week — she says that the fines coupled with inflation make it difficult to earn a living.

Olga Fernandez at her fruit stand on 149th Street and Melrose Avenue. Photo ET Rodriguez

Despite the hardships and struggles, many vendors emote a sincere love for what they do and enjoy the freedom and empowerment of  running their own businesses and sharing in a piece of the pie that is the American entrepreneurship. 

Whether you are a worker in midtown getting a quick lunch from the Halal Guys, a tourist grabbing a hot dog from a cart with the famed yellow and blue Sabrett’s umbrella or a parent buying their kids rainbow ices on a hot day in July — mobile food vendors are a part of the everyday hustle and bustle that is the Big Apple.

Down on Rector Street, Maria Falcon exits the headquarters of the Street Vendor Project where she meets with Kaufman-Gutierrez to help navigate her legal situations. As a result of being detained for selling fruit on the train platform without a permit, she must pay a few $25 fines – this time.

“We are not bad people. We are just working, surviving, we don’t cause anyone harm,” she says as she walks to take the train back to her home in Queens. “If we don’t work, how can we live?”

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