Vending laws force closure of coffee cart

Sol Café, the student-run coffee cart on H Street, will be unable to re-open under current D.C. vending laws, after the cart’s current owner failed to obtain the proper vending permits following a yearlong battle with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

An official from the DCRA – who spoke under condition of anonymity due to an ongoing investigation into the cart’s original sale – said Sol Café owner and GW senior Simone Freeman unknowingly illegally purchased her cart from the cart’s previous owner. Freeman had previously worked for the cart’s original owner before she purchased it in the fall of 2009.

The official said that the cart’s original owner Naceur Negra was given a permit to operate the coffee cart in its current location on H Street in 2007 “that stated in plain black and white that it was nontransferable.”

Negra, however, sold the cart and the vending site permit to Freeman without telling her it was nontransferable, the official said. Vending site permits are necessary in order to operate in a location in the city, and the DCRA is no longer issuing new vending site permits under current D.C. laws.

“You can’t just walk down the street and sell a piece of sidewalk to your friend for a hundred dollars, and that’s sort of what happened here,” the official said. “It says right on the permit this site is not transferable, it allows the vendor to operate this site and this site only. It is crystal clear.”

Freeman’s basic business license – a second necessary permit that all employees of sidewalk businesses need in order to work – expired Sept. 12. Freeman had originally received the license when she was working for Negra at the cart. Because Freeman had illegally obtained her cart, however, and did not legally own the business for which the basic business license was intended, she was unable to renew it.

After learning she could not renew her basic business license, Freeman approached Negra and asked if it could be renewed under his name, and Negra requested that she pay him nearly $2,400.

“I’m charging for the usage of my name,” Negra said. “It’s my fee.”

The official said that because the city is no longer distributing new vending site permits, the only way for Freeman to reopen her cart would entail Freeman reselling the cart to Negra, and operating under his vending site permit.

“We tried to do everything we could because she sort of didn’t understand what was going on and got taken advantage of,” the officials said. “She has an excellent case, in our opinion, in going to civil court and getting awarded all the original money back and money for damages. Unfortunately, there is nothing else we can do.”

Freeman said that going back into business with Negra would conflict with her ethical beliefs, and does not intend to reconcile with Negra in order to reopen her cart.

“Sol is meant to be a business model for how customers and workers should be treated globally and locally. GW is a learning community and what kind of example am I setting for my classmates if I got back into business with a dishonest man?” said Freeman, a former Hatchet photographer. “It goes against everything I believe in and I’m not going to do it.”

This is not the first time the District shuttered Freeman’s business. Last October the DCRA shut down the cart over an illegitimate zoning license. D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans eventually helped reopen the cart.

Those who frequented the cart before it was closed said they would like to see Freeman’s business restored.

Paul Swiercz, a GW professor of business who used to pass by the cart frequently, said it offered a certain personality that Starbucks did not. He does not think it is necessary for the city to shut down the café.

“What is the justification for not permitting it to be there? If it stays, there’s no substantive change in how the world works,” he said.

Even students who aren’t customers of the café said they will miss the music and free-spirited circle of students who crowd around the stand.

“I’ve only been here one month and I already know it’ll change the feel of things,” said freshman Sam Nelson. “It makes this powerful city seem a little more down-to-earth.”

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