Pret a Manger & Bistro Milano Call Cops on New Street Sweets Truck

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It sounds like 55th Street btw. 5+6th has been nothing but trouble for the brand new Street Sweets Truck since they popped up last week. On Monday, they complained that “politics” forced them to move to a different spot. Commenter “bm2e” seemed pretty pissed: “This is BULLSHIT. The carts on the block at 55th and 6th are a standard hot dog cart (pretty good, reasonable prices) and a mediocre halal cart that isn’t even there every day. Add to this poor showing the fact that the crap Italian restaurant in the first floor of 1350 6th Ave actually went and rented a U-Haul to prevent the truck from parking.” (I got confirmation that Bistro Milano, the Italian restaurant inside 1350, did indeed rent a UHaul and put it in the spot to prevent them from parking there on Monday.)

Well, it looks like it all came to a head yesterday when I noticed the scene above in front of the truck just before Noon. I asked one of the cops what was going on and he seemed all too excited to tell me.

“You want to know what is going on?”, he said. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s going. That place right there (pointed to Bistro Milano) and that place right there (pointed to Pret a Manger) are both pissed because they pay all this rent to this building and now this truck is selling food right outside their door.” And naturally, because it’s the same kind of food they’re angry. “That’s the thing!”, he continued. “It’s completely different! That restaurant right there is fancy, and doesn’t even open until lunch. What do they care if these guys are serving coffee and muffins in the morning. This truck is following all the laws. They’re doing nothing wrong. You don’t want them to park in front of your business… you know what? Too bad. This is America!”

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He obviously wasn’t speaking as an official spokesperson for the NYPD, but seemed genuinely annoyed that they had to waste their time coming out to take care of this nonsense. In addition to the cops, the Fire Department and HAZMAT (the guys who handle hazardous material!?!) were both called to the scene by the owner of 1350 6th Ave. (the building that houses both Bistro Milano & Pret).

The landlord has complained directly to the Street Sweets truck a number of times before yesterday. The initial complaint was about the noisy muffler that disturbs the diners eating outside the restaurant on the sidewalk. So Street Sweets spent almost $2000 ordering a silent muffler which will arrive next week. But that wasn’t enough. The building then complained about the smell of diesel, but the truck’s engine is off during most of the day, running on propane generators (and when the truck is running, it runs on bio-diesel.) So, they switched to complaining about the smell of grease and oil- but Street Sweets does no frying on the truck, so there is no oil or grease.

Clearly the building just wants them gone, but according to the Fire Captain on the scene the truck is breaking no rules. They have the legal amount of propane on the truck and are parked in a completely legal spot. As long as they can withstand the complaints and harassment from the building, they can stay there.

The problem is, they’re not just getting it from the building. The other street vendors in the area are unhappy as well- most notably the morning coffee cart. Street Sweets, in an effort to be a good neighbor and to show they’re not interested in stealing business that other carts have worked years to build up, agreed to not sell regular, American coffee before 11am. Only espresso and cappuccino, which in theory wouldn’t infringe on the sales of the coffee cart. Not sure if that will be enough to satisfy, but we’ll see.

Either way, Pret still wants them gone. According to the owner of the Street Sweet Truck, one of the managers of Pret complained to him yesterday that the truck was “destroying our morning business.” The truck’s owners find that hard to believe since they took in less than $100 (if even that.) But in this economy every bit counts, and (while this may surprise you) I do see the other perspective.

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Pret and Bistro Milano pay a lot of money in rent, and their competition was clearly defined before they moved in. There are a limited number of places to rent space. If we allowed *direct* competitors to just set up on the sidewalk in front of every business in the city, it would be pretty bad for business across the board. To top it off, there is no question that al fresco dining is a big part of Bistro Milano’s business, and having a truck parked so close to their sidewalk area is no doubt annoying.

On the other hand, 55th street is zoned to accept street carts and trucks, and if the truck is breaking no law they should be allowed to stay. And they’re not the only truck that parks there. The street is jam packed with idling delivery trucks all day long. Is Bistro Milano going to go after UPS?

I’ve always been quick to criticize street carts who bully other street carts that are not competition. Halal vendors should not bully a cart selling Mexican food or Korean food, and Mister Softee shouldn’t bully a lady selling cookies and brownies. It’s not direct competition. But what about when a new truck shows up that clearly does effect your bottom line. There is no question the Street Sweets truck will negatively effect the businesses in question. Most directly, Pret and the Coffee Cart- and indirectly, they will effect Bistro Milano by making their outdoor dining slightly less pleasant.

So what’s the answer? My gut says “bring on the trucks, and let the strong survive!” But that system would benefit some at the expense of a lot of hard working people who have spent years building up their business. It’s easy to say “Screw Pret”, but a little harder to say “Screw that guy making $15,000 a year selling coffee and doughnuts.” You can’t have it both ways. No matter what concessions they make, the Street Sweets Truck parking on 55th will hurt the coffee vendor too. In a lot of ways, the surrounding businesses are lucky that Street Sweets are at least trying to be good neighbors (ordering the muffler, not serving coffee before 11am, etc.) They aren’t legally obligated to do any of those things.

I’m not sure I know the solution, but I do know this: As more and more of these new-school trucks and carts start popping up in Midtown, the problem is just going to get worse. And bullying and intimidation tactics are not the answer. Whether it is direct threats from another vendor, or a restaurant calling the cops.

According to their Twitter, the Street Sweets Truck is back today on the SE Corner of 55th & 6th.

Related:
Halal Vendors Chase Happy Well Being Cart
Rafiqi’s Tries To Intimidate New Mexican Cart From 49th Street
The Treats Truck Will Try Her Luck at 45th St. Today

81 Comments

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Zach — This post is very interesting and the issue really well presented. Thanks for bringing the issue to our attention.

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Because of this article, I’m buying treats from Street Sweets for the whole office today!

  • The only person i can really understand is the coffee cart. But honestly there is a coffee cart on almost every block often in eye shot of each other. If that’s ok why isn’t another slightly different competitor ?

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    I stopped by yesterday for a mid afternoon snack, and had a nice little chat with the main owner of the truck. They are really putting the screws to him. He even had a shish kebab guy try to put intimidation tactics on him. I hope he endures the nonsense.
    BTW had croissant with praline preserves creme filling. Croissant was standard fanfare, but the filling was excellent. Was very subtle, not overly sweet at all, and added a nice flavoring to the pastry.

  • Very enjoyable and informative post. I agree it’s a tough issue all around, but the bleeding heart liberal in me totally routes for the upstart/underdog Streets Sweets truck. Pret’s a chain. Also, this is NYC – “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

  • 55th & 6th toxic to outdoor dining as it is. Bistro has nothing to complain about. This truck is distinctly different from Pret and Bistro Milano. Also, the truck is going to get more attention over the first couple of weeks and then it will settle. Pret should just live with it.

    If anyone in the neighborhood is going to be affected it’s the Dessert Truck. They are more similar to Street Sweets and only a few blocks away.

  • Hmm… I have to disagree a little with you Zach. I think the truck is completely in the right, and it is “Screw Pret!” It’s not because I don’t like Pret or anything like that. In fact, their food is ok (when it’s free).

    But the main problem is that as a business, you’re kind of a p*ssy if you complain about not factoring better competition into your business plan. Yea, there’s lower barrier to entry for food trucks than there are for brick and mortar restaurants. Guess what people?! That’s how it works! I think it’s a serious mistake when we start to say, “We should protect some businesses because they were there first!”

    That said, I think the uhaul truck thing is brilliant. Since those trucks charge you per mile driven, and just 20 dollars a day or something, it makes sense for you to get a truck for 35 bucks and thwart competition.

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Let the strong survive! That’s capitalism. The coffee truck won’t have a problem if they serve better coffee at a fair price. Protecting them would come at the cost of the consumer, forcing us to worse/more expensive options. This is how markets work. The coffee truck can figure out how to compete or they can fall by the wayside but in either scenario what will remain is the best food option around (for the general public, maybe not for my/our tastes).

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    Hey Zack, great longer-form piece on this issue. And yeah I’m pissed! My office is in 1350, and Bistro Milano is notorious here for having slow service that results in mediocre food at ridiculous prices. But the point is, as the patrolman told you, it’s competing for a completely different customer than the Street Sweets guys.

    I have to admit that I’d previously kind of forgotten about the coffee cart guy because I don’t go to him. But it seems like Street Sweets is doing the right thing by him, even though I’m suffering because I can’t get my delicious Cafe Americano from them in the morning now.

    It seems to me the business on the block that should have a legitimate gripe is Dunkin’ Donuts on the north side of 55th. I wonder if they’ve said anything? As to Pret, the less said about that shop and its mayonnaise-laden sandwiches the better.

  • Street Sweets Truck – I for one, salute you. This is capitalism at its finest.

  • @demigodh – Just to play devil’s advocate… there is one problem with the “capitalism rules” system. Eventually every brick and mortar Midtown Lunch we love will be replaced by a McDonald’s or something similar. You can blame it on the consumer for eating at those places, but in the end the large companies are the only ones that can survive on small profit margins- allowing them to undercut the mom and pop store, who might be putting out a better, but slightly more expensive product.

    And it works the same way down the line. Completely unregulated capitalism will not necessarily leave us with “the best food option”.

  • This article only gives me more motivation to support sweet treats.
    I loved this post. Before ever finding this site (when I wasnt LIVING – lol) I would have never even thought about the way the street vendors deal with eachother.
    I hope the truck stands up to them!

  • As the cop says, this is F’ing America! Capitalism for all! If you don’t like stiff competition, go somewhere else…No street vendor “owns” their parking spot. That’s why they pay no rent….If they paid rent on the spot, it would be different. As to businesses who are paying rent, lower your prices at certain times of the day and be more competitive and you will take out these carts—

  • A very well balanced summary of the issues with a quote from NYC Police – not easy to do these days. As for the debate, not to get all ‘free market will solve everything’ but isn’t competition what drives better service and hopefully tastier food? I mean, if you took Pret’s actions even further why not just complain about every business for 2 blocks that competes with them or offers what they sell for less? I mean Pret is the one with a giant $.99 coffee advertisement in their window obviously aimed at stealing business from Starbuck’s by undercutting them by 70% – that said I think either side can do what they can within the law (like rent a U-haul hitch ) but they better be careful – the publicity war is being won by Sweets Truck based on their conciliatory actions and if Pret or anyone else is too much of a jackass it may backfire.

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    If the Sweet Treats truck sells better coffee and pastries than Pret or the coffee cart who cares how they feel? We should be concerned with getting a great product at a reasonable price. Besides, there will always be people that want shitty coffee and a shitty pastry on the cheap for the cart guy.

    As far as Bistro Milano goes, fuck them. First of their name is an oxymoron. Second of all, 55th isn’t exactly the Champs Elysees. If the truck wasn’t there the view isn’t going to get any better.

    And as an aside on the truck, I bought 4 brownies there yesterday, after a brief talk with Zach who was there checking the scene out. The brownies are delicious and my coworkers liked them a lot, but the truck’s rewards card is a sham. 4 brownies = one stamp?! If I went four separate times they would give me stamp each time, but if I buy four things I get one only. I demand justice Zach!

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    I’m not that big of a sweets person, but I have to say this is making me want to support the truck by giving them my business. I can understand the coffee cart not loving the idea, but it seems like the sweets truck is making an active effort to be a good neighbor and not mess with anyone. They even agreed not to serve regular coffee first thing in the am! I mean come on, thats a huge gesture. And there are a million coffee carts that could be this guys competition, and I bet none of them would make that same gesture if they were in the sweet carts position. If Pret cannot adapt to the new cart sensation then their business won’t survive in the city as a whole, not just on that block.

    I hope this and all the other new carts can stick it out. Damn the man. Save the empire.

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    PS- I love that cop and kudos to Zach for showing both sides to the story. Nice little debate to ponder.

  • The coffee cart guy will do fine and I think Street Sweets should respectfully backpedal on their admittedly gracious decision to not sell regular coffee in the morning. Their small coffee is $1.95, while the coffee cart guy’s is only a $1. You’re getting very different coffees, and they’re going after two different markets.

    If you haven’t tried it yet, Street Sweets’ coffee is great – and its sourced from a micro-roaster in Tarrytown, NY. It’s deliciously smooth like Dunkin Donuts but complex enough for coffee snobs.

    The owners are really nice people, ex-corporate types who have decided to take the plunge and work for themselves.

    I’m boycotting the a-holes at Bistro Milano and visiting Pret less often. And if SL Green (the landlord of 1350) is involved in intimidating Sweet Treats, then shame on them….

  • User has not uploaded an avatar

    F the love-in and philosophical debate; not only am I going to buy from the truck, I’m going to write letters to these businesses and their corporate partners condemning these practices (and if I didn’t have a full time job I’d be out there distributing flyers to embarrass the sh#t out of them for being scared little p#ssies).

  • support the trucks!!!

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