‘Game over’: Food carts adjust to a changed city

Around 11:30 a.m. on a muggy July Wednesday in midtown Manhattan, the line for Uncle Gussy’s food truck started to form.

As the truck served warm gyros and fragrant chicken platters to the customers who wandered out of the sleek office towers nearby, Nicko Karagiorgos, the food cart’s gregarious co-owner, greeted his regulars. How are the kids? Did your friends like the food last time?

But soon, he got to his real questions: When is your office reopening fully? When are the workers returning?

For Karagiorgos and thousands of other food trucks and vendors in New York City, their shot at making any meaningful profits — or, in some cases, even making it worth their while to haul their carts into the city — depends on when office buildings fill up with workers and tourists return in significant numbers.

Food trucks and cart vendors are part of the city’s fabric, fast and inexpensive options for hungry office workers, retail employees, students and out-of-town visitors looking for anything from chicken and rice to coffee and an egg sandwich to lobster rolls and even steak meals. But for now, these vendors are primarily watching and waiting.

Some offices have begun bringing employees back and there has been an increase in tourists, but the bulk of the usual customer base has not yet reappeared. And while many New York City offices expect to bring more employees back in the fall, the hybrid model of being able to work from home a few days a week is worrisome to these vendors. COVID-19 cases in New York City, meanwhile, have started to rise at a startling pace, up an average of 203% over the past 14 days.

“I’m never going to make what I made pre-COVID again. That’s game over,” Karagiorgos, 44, said. “We have to accept that and hustle a little harder. This is a young man’s game. The hours are long. I’m on my feet all day, but I’ll do anything. If you want me to juggle, I’ll 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 are competitive with one another, they follow an honour code, like respecting the longtime parking locations of other trucks. Many also share information with one another about where to find customers.

“During this pandemic, there were several food trucks that came together and we learned about each other’s journeys,” said Eden Egziabher, owner of Makina Cafe, a truck that serves a mix of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Italian cuisines. “They would tell us to not go to a certain location because it hadn’t fully come back yet.”

Egziabher recently decided she wouldn’t go back to midtown Manhattan until September, when, she thinks, more office workers will return.

The past year has been especially difficult for the smaller food carts and vendors, though. Many are recent immigrants who often have obtained the $200 city-issued permit on the underground market, paying as much as $25,000 over two years to the person who holds the permit, even during the pandemic. (The city hopes to eliminate the underground trade by annually issuing 400 new permits, which it said would not be able to be traded in an underground market, over the next 10 years. Just 2,800 exist now.)

“Most of the vendors are working and they’ve seen a small amount of pickup in the past few months, but others are just waiting because even just to set up the coffee or falafel cart in midtown costs too much,” said Mohamed Attia, managing director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. Vendors must not only pay for the food and beverages they stock each day, but also pay an SUV or a van $50 to $80 a day to transport the cart back and forth from depots in Queens and elsewhere.

“Most of them need to spend $300 a day just to open the doors, and if you’re not seeing those kinds of sales, you’re going to lose money,” Attia said.

MD Alam, who came to New York from Bangladesh in 1998, pays $18,000 every two years to the person who holds the permit to operate his mobile cart, Royal Grill Halal Food, from a corner of 44th Street and Avenue of the Americas.

Before the pandemic, his sales totalled $3,000 a day. Now Alam is barely making $50 a day in profits after paying $350 in operating expenses.

“I need the offices to be open so I can go back to how I was before,” Alam said. “The city is dead because everyone’s home.”

Dennis Apreza, owner of the truck El Toro Rojo, said he had to leave midtown because the activity in the area plummeted during the pandemic and he lost more than half his sales. Apreza moved uptown, close to Columbia University, where he found more customers, mostly students who live nearby.

“In a small business, you can’t afford to continue trying the same spot for more than a week,” Apreza said. “We only go to midtown once a week because it’s not quite there yet.”

Aside from a few fits and starts, including an office job for a few years, Karagiorgos has been selling food on New York City’s streets since he began working at his uncle’s hot dog cart in the 1980s when he was 10. His uncle’s cart was at 51st Street and Park Avenue, and also sold Greek sausage, spinach pie and souvlaki platters. He and his brother took over the cart in 2007, expanding to a truck the next year.

From his corner, Karagiorgos has seen the real-world effects of booms and busts of Wall Street, the real estate market and other bubbles. His customers are the corporate chief executives and the mailroom workers.

When COVID hit last year and New York City shut down, Karagiorgos parked his truck in April and waited. He connected with the New York Food Truck Association, which began arranging for the trucks to feed city hospital workers (donations funded their meals). Then, it began organising them to travel outside the city on weekends to cater bar mitzvahs and weddings. In recent weeks, the association, which has about 80 members who have about 125 food trucks, has arranged for the trucks to cater lunch for corporate employees returning to the office.

“We’re insanely busy now. We’ll have eight or nine trucks rotating three times a week at Goldman Sachs for the entire summer, feeding 8,000 employees,” said Ben Goldberg, a co-founder and the president of the New York Food Truck Association. “Everyone wants to do catered reintegration parties. The companies are trying to entice people back into the office.”

While those types of events are helping Karagiorgos’ bottom line, they’re not enough to make up for the loss of his normal midtown lunch crowd. He said that he was back to about 40% of his pre-COVID business, but that the cost of chicken and other food had skyrocketed in recent months. Mondays and Fridays, when even fewer people are going to the office, are his worst days.

“We raised our prices,” he said. “We’re almost at $10 a gyro right now, but what are you going to do?”

With that in mind, Karagiorgos is hustling to set up his Plan B. He’s working with a food distributor to package and sell Uncle Gussy’s Souvlaki on a Skewer direct to consumers, whether they go into the office or not.

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