By the time Cristo Reyes and Javier Velasquez leave their homes in Corona, Queens, it is 10 p.m. and too late to kiss their children goodnight. They live up the block from each other and together drive 20 minutes to a brightly lit and abundantly packed truck that slightly smells like fuel, cleaning liquids and food that is ready to be turned.
Best friends Reyes and Velasquez have operated their Mexican food truck, El Rey de Tacos, in the heart of Astoria on Ditmars Avenue and 31st Street for almost four years. Astoria, Queens is known as a lively, traditionally Greek and Italian neighborhood that in the past few years can be argued to have been gentrified. Brazilians, Bangladeshis and Colombians are some of the nationalities that have moved into the neighborhood. Astoria is home to some of the most popular and diverse cultural restaurants.
In a neighborhood full of good eats, Reyes and Velasquez knew exactly what they were doing when they decided to operate their food truck in this high volume neighborhood. With the success of El Rey de Tacos, they recently decided to run another food truck in the heart of Flushing on Main Street, in order to support each of their families and send money back to their native country of Mexico.
Reyes, 37, worked as a mathematics teacher in his native country until he and Velasquez were awarded a visa, along with his family, to move to the United States. “I’m here to live the American dream, not pay for one for making the choice to better myself and my family’s financial state. [Velasquez] and I have talked about the increase in costs to legally run our business but I just don’t think it’s worth it and if we can’t agree on how to run our business, we might have to go our separate ways,” said Reyes. Reyes, who was born and raised in Mexico for most of his life, came to the United States with his family 7 years ago in hopes of starting a new life. He worked as a mechanic at a local body shop in Mexico to feed his family.
But the decision of starting up another food truck has caused a riff and tension between Reyes and Velasquez, as Reyes wants to run the truck illegally without having to pay for a permit. Now with street vendor permits set to double in New York City over the course of seven years, Reyes stands by his decision while Velasquez, 35, wants to invest in multiple permits to expand their business.
In New York city, there is a limit on the number of food vendor permits allowed by the city’s health department. The limit of 4,235 permits has caused many vendors to turn to the black market where two-year permits can cost up to $25,000. Legally today, vendors can obtain a two-year permit from the city for $200 with the ability to renew it indefinitely. Under the new proposed legislation, called the Street Vending Modernization Act, however, a two-year permit will cost vendors $1,000.
Food trucks have been a way of entrepreneurship for many immigrants, including Reyes and Velasquez, since running a food truck is much more inexpensive than running an actual restaurant where you have to worry about things such as rent and paying employees. “We always wanted to start our own business but when you look as Hispanic as we do and carry a strong accent, people don’t take you seriously because they assume you know nothing about making money,” said Velasquez.
In the first few months, they realized their truck was the most popular between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., and became a hot spot for people to go to after a long night of drinking or somewhere quick to grab food to catch up with friends. Ever since then, they decided to only stay open during those hours.
“We make enough money to open a few more trucks and [Reyes] wants to go through with that plan but he wants to do it illegally,” said Velasquez. “[Reyes] said, ‘Why should we pay for something we have a right to do? We’re here for the American Dream and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.’”
Without a permit, Velasquez fears that they will have their cart taken away in Flushing and any future ones they decide to start up. “I don’t want to pay over $1000 in fines when I could use that money to legally run my business. I’m scared to work at that location by myself sometimes because I don’t completely agree with running the business that way and who knows if someone comes and catches us,” said Velasquez. He went on to say, “A big piece in the puzzle is a permit and I understand the price for one is planned to increase by a lot but if paying that big price means a better life for my kids and family in the long run, I have no problem in the investment.”
Reyes has a completely different outlook than Velasquez when it comes to running the business that they started. “I work 7 days a week and barely get to see my family, just so I can give them a good living. Why should I have to pay to feed my family? It just doesn’t make sense,” said Reyes.
If Reyes and Velasquez do not come to an agreement and have to part ways, it will greatly affect their business. “We split the costs of whatever we need to buy in terms of food and supplies then split in half whatever we make each night also. We kind of need each other to run both trucks so we need to come to a compromise,” said Velasquez.
Reyes agrees that they need each other to run the trucks but does not think it is impossible to do it without Velasquez. “If worst comes to worst, I’ll only run one truck and close the other. Then slowly when business picks up even more I’ll think about expanding again. I can’t have a business partner who’s not on the same page as me,” said Reyes.
Street vendors have been pushing the City Council to lift the decades-old cap on permits to sell halal food, hot dogs, pretzels and tacos on city streets. The city has limited the number of food carts and truck permits to a number that has not budged since the 1980s.
With the Street Vending Modernization Act, more people may be able to follow the road of entrepreneurship and run their business without having to run into the Black Market.