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And Now a Word With the César Chávez of Hot-Dog Stands

Nine questions for Sean Basinski, street-vendor defender.

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You’re a Georgetown Law grad. Now you run a food cart?
I opened the cart in the summer of 1998, before I went to law school. I love Mexican food, and a cart seemed like a good opportunity for a low-cost start-up that could help me make some money. It can’t be that hard, I thought.

And?
It was tough to make money, even though people loved my burritos. I’d spend hours prepping everything the night before and then cooking the next morning. I was only out there for a couple of hours in the day, but it was brutal work. It was summer, it would be 95 degrees out, and I’d be standing over this steaming grill in the sun. Then I’d push the cart all the way home, with taxis blaring at me.

Any rude-customer stories?
I was on 52nd Street and Park, so I had the business-lunch crowd—guys in suits. Usually customers aren’t the ones who treat you badly. Customers love vendors. Police, not so much. Obviously, I stood out, and I think that helped me. There was a curiosity factor, like, “What’s this white guy in a polo shirt doing?”

Then you got political.
That summer, Giuliani tried to close off many streets to carts. There was a protest march, and we were somewhat successful. After I went to law school, I won a fellowship to design a program to meet an unmet legal need. I thought about the 10,000 vendors on the street with no lawyer and no voice, and I recognized that I was in a position to help. So I started the Street Vendor Project. We have 600 members, and we represent vendors on legal issues—licenses, street access, fines.

You also run the Vendy Awards. Street-food awards?
Three years ago, we were discussing the Grammy Awards in the office, and we thought, “Of course! We should have a Vendy Awards!” We’d been looking for fund-raising options, and it seemed like a natural. People love competition, and they want to have fun. They want to support the organization without having to hear, “Oh, the suffering. Oh, social justice.”

Who chooses the winners?
As of July 1, anybody can write in to our Website and nominate his or her favorite vendors. The top nominees are invited to come to the awards and cook for the crowd—it costs $60 to attend—and a panel of expert judges. Then the judges determine the winners. This year—the awards are on September 29—we’re going to have a people’s-choice award, too.

Who are your judges?
We’ve got some foodies, people like Sara Moulton—she was on the Food Network. And a couple of local food bloggers, Ed Levine and Andrea Strong. We still don’t have an emcee. Any ideas?

Do people dress up?
You can if you want. We’re thinking of trying to do a red carpet this year for the vendors to walk down, but we’ll have to find a carpet on the cheap. Right now, it’s held in a little park in the West Village on Sixth Avenue, but we eventually see it being held at Madison Square Garden. A thousand dollars a head!

Any favorites this year?
You can’t win more than once. Rolf “Hallo Berlin” Babiel (on 54th and Fifth) won the first year, so now he’s forever banned. Last year, Samiul Haque Noor, a.k.a. “Sammy’s Halal,” from Jackson Heights won. I don’t know who the finalists are going to be this year because we haven’t started nominations yet. But the last two years, the runner-up was Thiru “Dosa Man” Kumar from Washington Square Park. I think a lot of people are going to be wondering if this is Thiru’s year. I know a lot of people who are pulling for him. He’s like the Susan Lucci of the Vendy Awards.


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