The Economics of the Street Fair

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:03

    Curious why they seem to be everywhere downtown? Millions of dollars in city revenue may be an answer

    The scene is familiar to anyone living downtown: Over here you see a woman blending fruit to make smoothies. Over there is a guy selling what may or may not be designer sunglasses, and right next to him is the infamous "Zeppole! Fried Snickers! Italian Sausage!" truck, which smells like a combination of sweet fried dough and sizzling meat.

    It's autumn in New York, which means street fairs are out in force.

    To understand why they seem so ubiquitous, despite recurrent complaints from residents and some local business people, you have to understand this: street fairs are big business. The City of New York generates nearly $8 million from street fair permits ? paid by the companies that produce them. (Three companies are behind more than half of all the street fairs in the city.)

    Given that there are expected to be 245 of the fairs by year's end, that comes to $31,975.51 in revenue for the city -- per fair.

    Randi Horwitz, an Upper West Side resident who owns Social Eyes NYC, which offers a comprehensive list of street fairs, is a fan of the fairs. She said that this year, she has seen more small businesses at fairs than ever before. "There's not too many mom and pop shops left around here, so fairs and festivals are the only chance small businesses have," said Horwitz.

    For small businesses, the cost of setting up shop at a street fair is relatively small, between $150 and $375, depending on what you're selling and how much space you're seeking. When compared to the cost of renting retail space in the city -- $20,000 a month, on average, for 1,700 square feet -- it's easy to see why vendors flock to them.

    Vendors can now register online with any of the major festival production companies, including Mort and Ray Productions, Clearview or Mardis Gras, which makes it easier for small businesses.

    Often, vendors receive discounts if they sign up for multiple fairs, which explains why residents sometimes complain that all of the street fairs look alike. "A lot of people don't choose to go these fairs because New York has too many and they're very cookie cutter," said Suzanne Wasserman, a historian and the director of the Gotham Center for New York History.

    The solution to this, said Wasserman is to cater toward small businesses. Another option is to have more unique street fairs and festivals- like the Bastille Day feast in Bryant Park over the summer, where only French food, drink and products are sold. Another is the Ukrainian Festival, which takes place on 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues which features traditional Ukrainian food, costumes and dancing. Even for non-ethnic festivals, the trick is to not give in to the temptation of the mozzarepa.

    "Our festival is artisan, and it is not one of these events which has a swath of fried food booths- our foods are healthful and interesting,' said Paul Weingarten, a representative from the upcoming American Crafts Festival at Lincoln Center.

    "For the most part, we suffer from street fairs," said Ira Goller, owner of Murray's Sturgeon Shop. "There's no traffic, and the foot traffic is in the middle of the street."

    Goller said that about a decade ago, he used to participate in street fairs just to keep his storefront open, but then the city said that any vendor needed a health permit, even restaurants and shops that already had permits for their brick and mortar storefronts, so he stopped.

    But not every business rains on the street fairs' parades. Nina Chopra, who owns KC Signature Jewelry on Lexington and 56th, she will always participate in the street fairs because they're great for business.

    "I want to show people my products so that they will come inside my store," said Chopra. In busy East Midtown, Chopra owns one of the few small businesses in the area. "We get lots of customers from these street fairs."