“Game Over”: Food carts adapt to a modified city
At around 11:30 a.m. on a sweltering July Wednesday in Midtown Manhattan, the line for Uncle Gussy’s food truck began to form.
As the truck served hot gyros and fragrant chicken platters to patrons exiting sleek office towers nearby, Nicko Karagiorgos, the gregarious co-owner of the food cart, greeted his regulars. How are the children? Did your friends like the food last time?
But very quickly, he got to his real questions: When does your office fully reopen? When do the workers return?
For Mr. Karagiorgos and thousands of other food trucks and vendors in New York City, their chance to make significant profits – or in some cases even make it worth it to haul their carts around the city. – depends on when office buildings fill up with workers and tourists return in large numbers.
Food trucks and cart vendors are part of the fabric of the city, quick and inexpensive options for hungry office workers, retail workers, students, and out-of-town visitors looking for it all. , chicken and rice in the cafe and an egg sandwich with lobster rolls and even steak meal. But for now, these sellers are mainly watching and waiting.
Some offices have started bringing in employees and there has been an increase in tourists, but most of the regular clientele has yet to reappear. And while many New York City offices plan to bring in more employees in the fall, the hybrid model of being able to work from home a few days a week worries these vendors. New York’s Covid-19 cases, meanwhile, have started to increase at a surprising rate, averaging 203% over the past 14 days.
“I will never do what I did before Covid again. It’s the end of the game, ”said Karagiorgos, 44. “We have to accept this and work a little harder. It’s a young man’s game. The hours are long. I’m up all day, but I’ll do anything. If you want me to juggle, I juggle.
In some ways, the city’s food trucks may have weathered the pandemic better than some of their restaurant peers because of their mobility. While they compete with each other, they follow a code of honor, such as respecting other trucks’ long-standing parking spots. Many also share information with each other on where to find customers.
“During this pandemic, several food trucks came together and we learned about our travels,” said Eden Egziabher, owner of Makina Cafe, a truck that serves a mix of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Italian cuisines. “They were telling us not to go to a certain place because it hadn’t completely come back yet.”
Ms Egziabher recently decided she won’t be returning to Midtown until September, when she believes more office workers will return.
The past year, however, has been particularly difficult for small food carts and vendors. Many are recent immigrants who have often obtained the city’s $ 200 permit in the underground market, paying up to $ 25,000 over two years to the person holding the permit, even during the pandemic. (The city hopes to eliminate the underground trade by issuing 400 new permits each year, which it says could not be traded in an underground market, over the next 10 years. There are only 2,800 currently.)
“Most of the vendors are working and they’ve seen a small amount of pickup over the past few months, but others are just waiting because even just setting up the coffee or falafel cart in Midtown is too expensive,” said Mohamed Attia, general manager of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. Vendors not only have to pay for the food and drinks they stock each day, but also pay for an SUV or van from $ 50 to $ 80 per day to haul the cart between depots in Queens and beyond.
Daily business briefing
“Most of them have to spend $ 300 a day just to open the doors, and if you don’t see those kinds of sales, you’re going to lose money,” Mr. Attia said.
MD Alam, who arrived in New York City from Bangladesh in 1998, pays $ 18,000 every two years to the person who holds the license to use his mobile cart, Royal Grill Halal Food, at the corner of 44th Street and the avenue of the Americas.
Before the pandemic, his sales totaled $ 3,000 per day. Now Mr. Alam barely makes $ 50 in profit a day after paying $ 350 in operating expenses.
“I need the offices to be open so that I can go back to what I was before,” Mr. Alam said. “The city is dead because everyone is home.”
Dennis Apreza, owner of the El Toro Rojo truck, said he had to leave Midtown because activity in the area fell during the pandemic and lost more than half of his sales. Mr. Apreza moved to the upscale neighborhoods near Columbia University where he found more clients, mostly students who live nearby.
“In a small business, you can’t afford to keep trying the same place for more than a week,” Mr. Apreza said. “We only go to Midtown once a week because it’s not quite there yet.
Aside from a few jerks, including a desk job for a few years, Mr. Karagiorgos has been selling food on the streets of New York City ever since he started working in his uncle’s hot dog cart in the 1980s, when he was 10 years old. His uncle’s cart was at 51st Street and Park Avenue, and also sold Greek sausages, spinach pies, and souvlaki platters. He and his brother took over the wagon in 2007, and turned it into a truck the following year.
For his part, Mr. Karagiorgos has seen the real effects of booms and recessions on Wall Street, the housing market and other bubbles. Its clients are business owners and mailroom workers.
When Covid struck last year and New York City closed, Mr Karagiorgos parked his truck in April and waited. He contacted the New York Food Truck Association, which began organizing the trucks to feed the city’s hospital workers (donations funded their meals). Then he began to organize them to travel out of town on weekends to meet bar mitzvahs and weddings. In recent weeks, the association, which has around 80 members and around 125 food trucks, has organized lunch trucks for company employees returning to the office.
“We’re incredibly busy now. We’ll have eight or nine trucks running three times a week at Goldman Sachs throughout the summer, supplying 8,000 employees, ”said Ben Goldberg, co-founder and president of the New York Food Truck Association. “Everyone wants to do reintegration evenings with catered. Businesses are trying to bring people back to the office.
While these types of events contribute to Mr. Karagiorgos’ bottom line, they are not enough to make up for the loss of his regular Midtown lunch clientele. He said it was back to around 40% of its business before Covid, but the cost of chicken and other foods had skyrocketed in recent months. Mondays and Fridays, when even fewer people go to the office, are its worst days.
“We have increased our prices,” he said. “We’re almost $ 10 a gyroscope right now, but what are you going to do?” “
With that in mind, Mr. Karagiorgos scrambles to implement his Plan B. He works with a food distributor to package and sell Uncle Gussy’s Souvlaki on a skewer directly to consumers, whether or not they come to the office.