By Andrea Piñeda-Salgado
When was the last time you purchased food from a street cart vendor? For many of us, working from home, it’s been a while. This week, Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Piñeda-Salgado chatted with longtime vendor Hani Waly about the challenges he’s faced throughout the pandemic.
When Hani Waly came to the United States nearly two decades ago from Cairo, Egypt, he thought that purchasing a food cart would be the ticket to starting life in a new country. His uncle, who immigrated to the United States years earlier, was in the business, and helped Waly start his. At 19 years old, Waly was overjoyed at the prospect of being his own boss, answering to only himself and his customers.
A food cart in the city that never sleeps — or stops eating — proved to be a quick way for Waly to make money, and he relished the freedom it afforded him; he set his own hours and only answered to himself. His first cart was located in Central Park, where he sold hot dogs and fragrant shish kebabs to hungry tourists. He earned enough to pay his rent and bills, and even send money to his family back in Egypt where two of his four children live.
“I love it because since I [came] to this country, I have this job, I never change it,” he said. “It’s like it is easy money for me. And I relax myself too; I go any time I want in the morning, I leave anytime I want in the night.
Waly remained in that Central Park location until five years ago, when he began to quarrel with the owner of a newly opened liquor store, who would often call the police on him. Tired of arguing, Hani packed up and moved his cart down to Wall Street. By then, he was selling the fare that’s ubiquitous around the city: chicken and lamb over rice, gyros and falafel.
Waly’s customers were mainly office workers who would come by his cart during their lunch break and tourists who wanted something quick and easy to eat on the go. However, when the pandemic began last March, office workers began to work remotely and tourism dried up, leaving Waly without business.
“After like two days I stopped — I closed the cart,” he said. “I stayed home for a whole year.”
During that time Waly stayed afloat by drawing from his savings and borrowing money from friends.
Waly, like many many food cart workers, was drawn to a job that allowed him to be his own boss, but the pandemic made him realize how much he actually depended on other people to survive. Matthew Shapiro, the legal director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, works directly with vendors like Waly, and has seen firsthand how the pandemic has decimated their hard-earned livelihoods
“Vendors, by and large, suffered from a lack of business like any other small business in New York City. The lack of foot traffic, the lack of tourists and office workers really resulted in significant decreases in sales,” he said. ‘Vendors have not gone back to work or if they have, they’re not anywhere near the same amount of business they’ve been there pre-pandemic.’
These couple of months have been especially challenging for workers like Waly. They’ve had to endure extreme heat and rising costs to keep their business afloat amid the uncertainty of not knowing when — and if — their customer base will return.
“It is so hot outside, 90 degrees and inside the cart you have a grill [and] fryers, so with the mask on all day with all this heat, I come home andI have a headache,” Waly said. “It’s so hard.”
These days though, the heat is the least of Waly’s worries. He pays a van around $80 a day to transport his cart, which he keeps in a downtown Manhattan garage, to the Financial District. He is lucky if he sells $300 worth of food in a day right now. Subtract the food costs, plus transport, gas and propane, and Waly is barely turning a profit.
“Sometimes you come to work … and you make nothing for yourself.”
Shapiro tells us that food cart workers incur many more costs than one might think.
“They have licensing and permitting fees from the city. They have to pay for transportation to transport their cart to and from their vending spot. At night these carts are stored in health department-approved commissary garages,” he said. It’s difficult to work at any kind of small business, but when you’re a street vendor, you don’t have that door that you can close to your restaurant, you’re just a lot more vulnerable because you’re out on the sidewalk and you’re subject to an immense amount of government oversight and regulation.
At the moment, one of Waly’s most concerning expenses is actually chicken; the price has gone up drastically in the past year. He pays about 25% more these days than in the past, which has led him to compensate by raising his prices.
“When you tell the customers it’s $7 for the chicken and rice, they get angry because they don’t have [any] money,” he said. “They want it for $5 or $6 … you still give it to them because if you lose [the customer] you lose their money, and you’re not going to have a business.”
In the meantime, despite many businesses returning to the office, business is not close to what it used to be. Waly used to serve about 120 customers per day; now he’s lucky if he has 50. And the little business he does have is threatened by the Delta variant.
“Sometimes now, you make business one day, the next day is less, [and] the next day is less. If [there were] no tourists in the city, you would make nothing.”
While vendors like Waly qualified for grants from the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, few received assistance.
“We helped a bunch of people apply for this fund. But after we helped those people apply, we saw [in] the news that it was closed because [the fund] ran out of money,” Shapiro said. “So I’m not aware of any of the folks that we helped apply that received funds.
Lately, Waly has been contemplating leaving the food cart business and becoming and UberEats delivery driver; the pandemic has taken so much from him, he said, and he can’t afford to wait around and see if his customers return.
According to the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, there are roughly 20,000 street vendors in New York City, all of whom faced financial hardships similar to Waly.
“We shouldn’t take [street vendors] for granted,” Shapiro said. “Most people just walk by them or maybe they’ll get a cup of coffee or a lunch from the food cart. But, you know, these are people who have families to support most of the time. And they have a tough life because it’s very, very difficult to be a street vendor in New York City”
We hope this article inspires you to patronize a street cart vendor — if so, make sure you ask them how they are doing! If you want to learn more about the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, or donate money to help street vendors, you can visit www.streetvendor.org