Street vendors brave tough urban market

Street vendors brave tough urban market

NEW YORK —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

The cart’s menu items are restricted to Halal foods, or those permitted by Islamic law, as well as soft drinks and water that play to an appreciative, diverse crowd of office workers, cab drivers, tourists, doormen, utility crews and cops from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Along with a co-worker who cooks the food and would only give the name Madeed, Shehea handles the cash and packages the orders during a shift that goes from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Another crew takes over from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., hours that attract even longer lines of club kids and other night owls. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Food cart street vendors like Shehea represent a dynamic subset of New York’s restaurant industry—one that offers nearly as much culinary diversity as the blizzard of full-service establishments that internationalized the restaurant business here long ago. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Shehea and Madeed work for an absentee owner who lives in Egypt, also their birth land. Shehea would not discuss sales figures, but a reporter who watched him work one afternoon estimated that he and Madeed served three customers every six to seven minutes at about a $6 check average. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Street vendors have been part of the city scene since the late 1600s and today occupy a unique niche between fast food and fast casual, offering a vast array of foods that reflect the city’s multicultural population. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

For an average price of $5 or less, food lovers can find barbecue ribs in Times Square; stuffed-corn fritters, called arepas, from Colombia in Elmhurst, Queens; potato-filled pancakes from Sri Lanka in Greenwich Village [3]; Pakistani kebabs in Jackson Heights, Queens; English-style fish and chips in the East Village; and, of course, hot dogs in downtown Brooklyn. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates the food vendors and other street vendors—whose wares can range from apparel to small electronics to house wares and even flowers—only 3,000 of the 12,000 street vendors in the city are licensed to sell fresh, prepared foods. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Food vendor licenses are tightly regulated and limit operators to a single side of a corner or a clearly defined section if the cart is in the middle of the block. All of the food licensees and their employees must pass the city’s food handlers examination and post it on the outside of their kiosks, trucks, carts or grills, along with their license from the Department of Consumer Affairs. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

An analysis of tax records and Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers reveals that food street vendors contributed as much as $107 million to the city’s $11 billion in restaurant sales in 2005, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp., a business advancement initiative. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

The number of food vendors on the streets of New York can change daily based on such factors as the weather, street fairs, roadway projects and other big public events. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Some groups speculate that the number far exceeds the 3,000 food vendors sanctioned by the city. According to the Urban Justice Center, an economic and legal rights advocacy group for immigrants and the working poor, there are 6,000 street vendors in the city, and like gypsy cab drivers and dollar-van livery companies, they are largely unregulated. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Back in 1998, the city said that it had issued all of the 3,000 licenses that it intends to authorize for street food carts. Officials currently report that there is a long waiting list to acquire licenses that come on the market, even though some sympathetic city councilors are pressing the agencies to issue more permits. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

For time-strapped cab drivers, office executives and secretaries, street food vendors have become an indispensable part of what makes New York work. Christopher Heywood, a spokesman for NYC & Co., the tourist and marketing arm for New York City, hailed street vendors as a vital icon of the city that tourists expect to see and enjoy patronizing. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Similar to those of cab drivers, the working life of a New York street vendor is a grueling one, marked by low-to-modest wages, high rental deposits to absentee owners of the food license and the ever-present possibility of losing money because of fines or inclement weather. And those are the small hurdles. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Many big-name commercial retailers resent the presence of street vendors in front of their establishments. Several upscale retailing hubs on some blocks of the Upper East Side, Soho, Chelsea and other hot neighborhoods have zoned them out. In addition, aggressive homeless people can discourage customers, and sanitation police can slap businesses with fines as high as $1,000. Traffic cops also can dispense hefty fines on illegally parked trucks that pull the carts. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

All of those impediments are among the reasons why 38-year-old Thiru Kumar, known as the “Dosa Man” of Greenwich Village, wants to find a backer to help him open an indoor fast-food space, ideally in the same neighborhood. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Kumar, who works on Washington Square Park South on the border of New York University at Sullivan Street, was the second runner-up in last year’s Vendy Awards, a program launched in 2005 by the Urban Justice Center to honor the best of the city’s food vendors. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

The first-place winner was Samiul Haque Noor, a Pakistani immigrant whose Halal stand was determined by a panel of judges to be the best street food in the city. Efforts to find Noor in Jackson Heights were unsuccessful. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Kumar believes that his cart is the only one in the city that serves up dosa, a kind of stuffed potato crêpe made vegan-style with rice and lentils and no dairy products. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Like the line of customers waiting at Shehea’s Halal stand uptown, the number of customers waiting to order at Kumar’s can easily stretch 50 people deep on some days. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

A one-man shop working from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday, Kumar estimates that he serves three people every four minutes at about a $5 check average. Menu prices at his stand range from $1 to $4. He goes through 60 pounds of potatoes a day and uses up two 20-pound propane tanks every three days. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

He parks his cart at night in a Hell’s Kitchen warehouse specially designed for food vendors and leased to them for $360 a month. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Kumar previously was a professional diving instructor who introduced tourists to the beauty underneath the southern Pacific Ocean outside of his native land of Sri Lanka. He often would prepare dosa and other nonmeat food patties for his guests at the end of the day using a recipe from his mother. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

He said business was slow for several weeks, almost to the point of discouragement, when he first opened his cart six years ago. But word of mouth on the NYU campus, press attention and consumers’ growing interest in vegan and vegetarian lifestyles turned his business around. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Still, it’s a hard life, he said. On the day a reporter visited him, he was fined for parking his truck on the street. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

“The hardest thing about what I do is parking,” he said. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Over in Elmhurst, Queens, 20-year-old Alex Macias mans a food truck that serves up Ecuadorian favorites. Macias works for an Ecuadorian immigrant who owns three other trucks, all of them self-contained kitchens on wheels. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Elmhurst is a working-class, immigrant neighborhood where the food lines are nowhere near as long as those in Manhattan. Macias’ truck is not too far away from that of Maria Piedad Cano, known as the “Arepa Lady,” at 79th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Cano, another runner-up in the Vendy Awards, serves up cheesy, corn-based dishes. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

Sean Basinski, director of the street vendor project for the Urban Justice Center and creator of the Vendy Awards, said his organization is working to give food vendors more prominence and respect and is pressuring elected officials to issue more licenses. He also wants the city to go easier on fining operators on the street. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.

“Some of these fines can be a thousand dollars for something simple,” he said. —Some days, the line of customers waiting to order the chicken pita sandwich, lamb gyros or lamb platter plate at Alex Shehea’s food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue can be 80 people deep.