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

  • @Zach Brooks – I’m not sure MLers would tolerate all of our favorites being replaced by corporate chain. As evidenced by the wide adoption and praise (Kudos!) of your site by those who need to eat lunch in Midtown, there is a strong desire to find food prepared by people who take pride in their product, sell it at a fair price and work hard day in day out to do the best they can.

    To push your assumption to the limit, imagine if all the ML favorites were replaced by Pret, Panera, Europa Cafe, McDs, etc…

    The lunch consumers of midtown would not stand for it (since they’re used to the product options we have now), and someone willing to take the risk of making good food at a fair price, even if they had to open up a place in a loading dock/elevator lobby, would be greatly rewarded. More entrepreneurs would jump in and I think we would return to the balance we have now. This return of great food at a fair price would be accelerated by websites like your’s.

    I fully agree with demigodh. Have more faith in Midtown Lunchers, Zach! This isn’t midtown Indiana, we won’t settle for overpriced food, especially after reading your website!

  • Too bad for them! AWWwww someone is doing good business nearby, make them stop!!! WAAAHHHH!!! It’s a free market! Ya know what? I like Pret’s food, but I like cart food better….until I hear they stop being a pain in the ass, I’m boycotting Pret! I say all the trucks should line up right in front of them one day and show some support!!! Thundercarts!!! HOOOOOOOO!!!!!

  • One more thing…..Capitalism works because of the freedom of the seller and buyer. We the people choose to go here and there to buy our lunch. If the cart on the street wants my money, make something yummy. If some crappy deli fails because they have roaches in their food or it tastes like poo, well I’m not gonna go. If Pret fails because they have same 4 sandwiches and maybe I’m bored so we go elsewhere, well maybe they should ADJUST their business model and try to win me over! So, don’t fear big chains “taking over”. If they do, it’s only because they have something people want…same as the carts.

  • Where were all you free market types last November when we needed you? Damn lazy food blog reading slackers

    Zach’s inner torment is hilarious… he’s a chubby blogger at the top of the slippery slope, about to roll down… trying to find a solution that makes everybody happy in the end always just screws everyone instead

    I foresee a career for you in government, blog man

  • @Zach,, your comment that capitalism results in chains taking over mom-and-pops is incorrect. In fact, SME’s (small and medium enterprises, ie, mom-and-pops) generally have significantly better profit margins that large corporations and thus tend to thrive in open, competitive environments. By definition, SME’s have lower overhead which is a key advantage in most industries, especially food – where the cost of the food is a small component of overall cost. Don’t worry – Trucks Will Triumph!

  • i hate sweets, but i think i’m going to buy something from there today

  • indirect/substitute competition is just as bad. consider 1) coke vs pepsi (colas) and 2) coke vs every other beverage choice imaginable (including tap water!). it’s a huge threat that needs to be nipped in the bud. kudos to street sweets for being very diplomatic but you need to be more cutthroat when it’s versus corporations. they make too much money to realize their shortcomings and then when the shit hits the fan all they know is “raise prices and let the big profits cover up our mistakes.”

  • great article, zach!
    im headed over to the truck in a few. any recommendations?

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    When I first read about cart-on-cart intimidation on this blog, my first thought was, “How ridiculous that cart vendors are so territorial when they have absolutely no legitimate claim on their parking spaces? If anyone is going to be bitching, I would expect it to be the brick-and-mortar places who are paying huge rents for these prime locations, only to have carts pull up and pay nothing for the same location.”

    I guess the brick-and-mortar places bitch, too.

    If the official complaints against Sweets Truck are completely without merit, they should consider threatening legal action against their enemies. Unfortunately, getting sued is the only language that greedy bastards understand.

  • What is “intimidation” actually actually comprised of? What can these other cart owners do to carts that are new to their “territory”, which they don’t have any legal right to?

  • I like Pret’s food but not really liking their pricing anyway. If the sweets truck is better, than may the better business win! I have to try their coffee sometime. Pret’s organic coffee isn’t anything to boast about. I’ve only been getitng it when it’s 99 cents for the small. Haha.

  • @Zach – it is easy so I do say “Screw Pret”, I was thinking about getting a sandwich from that actual store for the first time in over 8 months, but now hello Street Sweets Truck!! Pret can kiss my #SS!

    As for the coffee vendor, I completely agree w/@rufus – different price points, different products .. also the Sweets is being very generous and accomodating by not selling regular coffee before 11.

    Lastly, Sweets is not breaking any laws so both Bistro Milano & Pret can just keep on “Cry(in’) me a River”

  • This is incredible. Pret is one of my current go-to, I like their sandwiches, but they should not be threatened by the Sweets as the menus are different enough to support customers for both. They might even bring in customers-if I were to go get a cookie specifically from the truck, I may get a salad from Pret for balance. Then again, I would love for Sweets to move around a little, but that’s for my own selfish reasons.

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    @dougiec — Apparently they were threatened with having their truck torched. That’d qualify as intimidation in my book! Hell, the idiots at the craptacular Bistro Milano calling the cops and FDNY on them is pretty much intimidation, too.

    I hope some other restaurant calls the FDNY on some other truck the same day that Bistro Milano’s kitchen catches fire.

    Oh that reminds me, hey Zach, any updates on the rebirth of Le Bonne Soupe?

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    There are so many people would never think of buying anything from a cart or truck. The brick and mortar businesses have nothing to worry about — they’ll always have customers if they have decent food….sadly, they’ll even have customers if they have crappy food…

    However, these businesses look out the window and see lines at the new carts/trucks parked out front and think that these customers would normally be in their shop. The reality is that the customers would probably never frequent their establishments and are driven to the carts/trucks via blog/web postings and good food.

  • You anchor a boycott Pret and Bistro Milano at the top of your page until they quit their ridiculous bitching.

    Pret serves overpriced organic crap. They appeal to a particular organic loving market, who I’m guessing isn’t going to get swayed by croissants sold out of a truck window. Plus Pret’s dessert options are terrible. They put oats and dried craisins in every damn product, cause thats what kids want in their dessert… fruit.

  • BTW… What excuse did they use to call the cops and FDNY? The PD and FDNY should invoice those two dumps of a restaurant for their time.

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    After buying treats for my office, I would not suggest the brownies or chocolate chip cookies as they managed to both be incredibly dry even on a day with 100% humidity. The croissants are fine if uneventful, and the ginger cookie is adequate. If they are to survive (regardless of hostile neighbors), they will need to step it up a notch as they can’t hold their own with the Treats Truck or Dessert Truck.

  • @tex – that might be true in other markets, but not in Midtown where rents are super high and competition over pricing is fierce. I’ve talked to many Midown restaurant owners who confirm the economics of Manhattan: the more locations you have, the cheaper your food overhead is for each location. I’m guessing it has something to do with delivering anything into the city. It is the same price for a single truck to deliver to one restaurant in Midtown as it is to deliver to 10. It’s why chains like Chipotle and Qdoba have come into the market with such force, and other popular chains (like Chick Fil A) have been more hesitant. They know the only way for their business model to work in Manhattan is to open multiple locations.

    It’s not a coincidence that the majority of mom and pop places who have closed in Midtown lately (because of increased rent) are being replaced by the same five chains.

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    stephen1192: I haven’t had anything from the Street Sweet truck, but Pret makes a mean Chocolate Chip cookie. Sounds like they(Pret) has nothing to worry about in that department. We order them fresh by the dozens periodically for the office.

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