Inspectors confiscate Philly cupcake truck

PHILADELPHIA - August 25, 2010

The Department of Licenses and Inspections seized a converted mail truck on Tuesday that's used by a woman known as "the cupcake lady," who roves the city selling 400-500 cupcakes a day.

The city says she did not have a proper permit to be running her small vending operation in the University City neighborhood, near the University of Pennsylvania. But the cupcake lady, Kate Carrara, a 35-year-old former lawyer, says the rules are just too confusing.

"It's just the laws," said Carrara, who paid $200 to get her truck out of the lot and was back selling cupcakes at a plaza near City Hall on Wednesday. "I've been trying to figure out where I can go and where I can't go."

Five days a week, she sell cupcakes downtown or nearby. She said she's tried to make sure she either has a permit or is outside of the zones where permits are needed.

But when she showed up in University City on Tuesday, Carrara said, city officials with badges were waiting for her. She thought she was just outside the zone where a permit was required, but the inspectors told her they had received complaints and that she wasn't allowed to operate there. They went through her cake-filled truck and promptly drove it to a lot.

The city said it warned Carrara several times that she was operating in areas where she needed a vending license. Inspectors advised her to either move or get one of the licenses, said Fran Burns, the city's Licenses and Inspections commissioner.

"We don't write the law, but we do enforce it," Burns said. "We don't get to be the arbitrators on whether we agree with the law."

Carrara started the Buttercream roving cupcake truck business a year ago. She has made cupcakes with beer and Bailey's Irish cream, plantains and other creative ingredients. One of her best-sellers is Red Velvet with cream cheese frosting.

Neither she nor her husband, Andy Carrara, 37, a data analyst for an investment bank, can figure out exactly where she's allowed to sell.

For now, she's sticking to JFK Plaza, a popular park near City Hall where she says she has a permit to operate. She's advocating that the city develop a special permit for roving businesses.

Customers say their beloved cupcake lady is the victim of convoluted and confusing city regulations.

"There's a reason why there's a 'Parking Wars' show and it's based in Philadelphia," said Joey Ly, 28, who recently moved from Chicago to Philadelphia and works at a downtown hotel. "The regulations are pretty strict around here."

"Maybe they just need to lighten up," he added.

For years, the city has been dubbed unfriendly to business. Companies and employers have long loathed the city's wage tax, paid by people who work in Philadelphia - whether they live in the city or not.

Others simply point to the arcane paperwork involved in getting permits at City Hall or what many describe as onerous taxes on businesses. Now, people sympathetic to the cupcake lady say this is the latest sad chapter.

A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the agency on which A&E's "Parking Wars" television series is based, said it had nothing to do with the truck being seized.

No matter who's to blame, loyal cupcake customer Marion Summerville said the imbroglio is another example of how the city needs to be more flexible with small businesses.

"Small business people are what drives the economy," said Summerville, 42, who owns her own skin care business. "The Philadelphia government is very difficult to navigate as a small business."

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