Food Fight | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Food Fight

South Side restaurant owners say a ban on outside food sales -- and the city councilor trying to enforce it -- are bad for business

Almost every weekend for the past four years, Souheil Obaid has been selling gyros to South Side bar-hoppers in front of his tiny Mediterranean Market, located on the 2000 block of East Carson Street. The late-night sales provide roughly half of his income; without them, he says, "I'd have to close down."

So when Pittsburgh City Councilor Bruce Kraus told him that his late-night business was illegal a couple of months ago, Obaid got worried. And baffled. How could his gyro sales suddenly be illegal?

"I'm so confused," he says.

A handful of other South Side business owners are puzzled too, wondering why the city is suddenly scrutinizing a practice that has been going on for years.

"Why enforce it now?" Obaid asks.

Some say the answer is easy: Councilor Bruce Kraus.

"He's making life miserable for us," says Mary Tolomeo, a bartender at City Grill, located next door to Obaid's market.

Tolomeo says that in recent weeks, Kraus has warned her that City Grill will be cited if she doesn't move her pizza stand off the sidewalk and inside the restaurant. She says he's even taken pictures of her and other vendors selling on the street.

"It's harassment," Tolomeo says.

Some South Side business owners say they aren't taking any chances. For now, they have decided to sell late-night food from inside their businesses until they can figure out what the laws are ... and which ones they might be breaking.

"There is a tremendous amount of confusion," says Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Company. "Transparency is always the best solution to these things."

Since Kraus took office this year, he says, he's been bombarded with phone calls from South Side residents asking questions like, "Why are people standing around eating pizza 'til 3 in the morning?"

Kraus says he's merely acting on behalf of constituents who are fed up with the neighborhood's "Mardi Gras atmosphere." He argues that street vendors are contributing to the "chaos and anarchy" on Carson Street, by giving drunks a reason to stick around after the bars close at 2 a.m. Some food vendors might gripe that he is "anti-business," but Kraus says he's supporting businesses next door to the street-vendors -- businesses that have to contend with litter produced by late-night food sales the next morning.

Belloli, whose nonprofit group is committed to the economic development of the South Side, says the food sellers shouldn't be surprised that Kraus is subjecting them to greater scrutiny. When Kraus ran for office last year, Belloli points out, he "ran on an enforcement platform all along... He made it clear in his campaign that there were a lot of things that weren't being enforced."

Even so, Kraus says, "No one is harassing the business owners. We are only asking them to be compliant with city code."

Kraus says that the city's zoning code flatly prohibits outdoor sales of food on the South Side. The code does permit such sales in portions of Market Square, the Strip District and various other locations, but not along Carson Street.

"There are no permits for outside vending" on the South Side, Kraus explains. "It all comes down to zoning."

Not as far as Dan McSwiggen, who co-owns Cambod-Ican Kitchen on the corner of 17th and Carson, is concerned. McSwiggen sells chicken-on-a-stick outside to late-night crowds -- a practice he says he thought was allowed by a permit issued by the Bureau of Building Inspection. That permit grants McSwiggen the right to operate a sidewalk café "as [an] accessory to [the] existing restaurant," five feet in front of, and four feet to the side of, his business.

To McSwiggen, the permit means that when he sells chicken outside, "We're selling on private property. We are not on the public sidewalk."

He found out otherwise when the city revoked his sidewalk-café permit in an Aug. 22 letter, which notified him that selling food outside was "not consistent with the standards required for the operation of a sidewalk café."

City zoning ordinances allow for sidewalk cafes, but "for tables and chairs only." By selling food directly to walk-up traffic, McSwiggen is breaking the law, says Mary Fleming, the city's building-inspection assistant chief of code enforcement.

"You do not have the right to sell food in front of your restaurant," Fleming says. For a sidewalk café to be valid, she says, "You must order in the restaurant." The reason businesses don't do that, she suspects, is that "Nobody wants these kids in their restaurant at 3 a.m."

According to Fleming, a business like McSwiggen's can apply for an Outdoor Retail Sales permit. But to receive it, city ordinances state, a business must provide "a standing area for customers" without "encroaching on the public right-of-way" -- including a sidewalk. But, says Fleming: "You can't just bring out a table and start selling anything you want."

She says the rules are explained to business owners when the permit is issued. But McSwiggen says he specifically told city officials "what I intended to do. No one said the permit [wouldn't] enable me to do that."

McSwiggen also takes issue with the claim that he's contributing to the unruliness on the South Side. If anything, he says, vendors like him are helping sober up drunks before they inevitably get behind the wheel of a car.

"You got a problem with drunks, you whack the drunks, not the business owners," he says.

Business owners say that even police officers are bemused by Kraus' approach to the problem. Indeed, during a City Paper reporter's trip to Cambod-Ican Kitchen, two officers joked with McSwiggen about Kraus' stepped-up scrutiny. "Hey Dan," one officer quipped: "Kraus was here earlier, and he said your lights were too bright."

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such a response, few citations seem to have been written so far. Gene Ricciardi, the district magistrate who tries such cases on the South Side, says he's presided over only one case involving street vendors. But through the grapevine, he says, he's heard many more will soon be coming.

That case, which reached his courtroom earlier this summer, involved Paparazzi Restaurant, where building-inspection officers said the restaurant lacked the proper permit to sell pizza slices on the sidewalk -- something the restaurant has done for years.

But Ricciardi, who once held Kraus' council seat himself, chose not to fine the business. Instead, Ricciardi says, he simply ordered Paparazzi to move sales indoors "until we figure these ordinances out."

"Why fine them if they don't fully understand what the rules are?" Ricciardi asks.

Ricciardi says he plans to issue a court order requiring city officials to meet with area business owners so that everyone can understand what the rules are. But Ricciardi cautions that such a meeting "doesn't mean [business owners] have to agree" on the city's interpretation of the rules. And Kraus, for his part, seems unlikely to relent.

"We have a code for a reason," he says. "We ... need to enforce the laws that are already on the books." Besides, he adds, he's not shutting down business -- but merely telling them to "move [the food sales] inside."

Belloli, of the South Side Local Development Company, says that city officials have to walk a fine line going forward. On the one hand, he says, vendors probably do add to the chaos of Carson Street on a Saturday night. Then again, he says, the city should be careful not to destroy what makes Carson so appealing in the first place:

"The vibrancy that [street vending] creates is valuable."

click to enlarge Souheil Obaid says restrictions on his late-night food sales are hurting his small business. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
Souheil Obaid says restrictions on his late-night food sales are hurting his small business.

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