There are 3,000 food carts in the city. Because the city stopped issuing new permits in the seventies, vendors can apply for one and wait for years or rent one from an owner. Renting is illegal, but there’s a thriving black market and officials typically look the other way. The black-market rental value of a cart runs about $3,000 a year.
Until the seventies, the cart business was dominated by Greeks. Now, coffee carts are run mostly by Afghans. Bangladeshis man virtually all fruit stands and most hot-dog carts, though many uptown hot-dog carts are Dominican. The Vietnamese run smoothie carts. Nut carts are manned by Brazilians and Colombians. The trade is so ethnically fragmented that even Bangladeshis, the largest single group of vendors, make up less than 20 percent of the total number.
Cart owners and operators are subject to hundreds of rules and regulations. The most common violation, accounting for 22 percent of all fines, is standing “too far from the curb”—farther than eighteen inches is deemed to be crowding the sidewalk. You can’t vend within twenty feet of a building entrance. Not offering a customer a receipt is a violation, as is vending at a bus stop, despite wildly differing ideas of what constitutes a bus stop. A cart can’t be more than ten feet in length (curiously, there are no rules on width), and food can’t rest on a wooden surface. A typical vendor pays $433 a year in fines, and New York’s courts deal with 59,000 vending-related cases every year. The fine for the “failure to conspicuously display a license” (a vendor must obtain a license from the city, which consists of submitting several forms to the Department of Health, paying $200, and taking a two-day food-handling class) is a particularly brutal one: At $1,000, it can put a cart out of business.
The four main types of carts are hot dog, kebab, coffee (“processing”), and fruit (“nonprocessing”). Processing carts cost between $15,000 and $30,000. A basic fruit cart costs about $1,000.
Where do carts go at night? They’re typically stored in garages, most of which are located on the western edge of midtown. The going rate for a monthly spot is $250 to $300. Carts are transported to and from the garages by van, flatbed truck (vendors often share one that fits multiple carts and split the rental cost), or by hand, aided by a small motor.
The average daily revenue of a food cart is $200 to $300. Once overhead costs are subtracted—permit, garage rentals, transportation costs—the cart owner or operator is left with daily net earnings of $100 to $150. Because most vendors work only part of the year, their average annual take is $7,500 to $14,000, according to the most recent survey by the Street Vendor Project.
The most profitable food-cart item is coffee, which commands a 500 percent to 1,000 percent markup (it costs the vendor between 10 and 20 cents a cup and sells for a dollar). Water typically costs 25 cents a bottle and sells for $1 to $2. Hot dogs cost the vendor about 50 cents per dog (with bun) and sell for $1 to $1.50. A hot pretzel, which costs 40 cents wholesale and typically sells for $1.50, is a better moneymaker. The least profitable item is fruit, owing to the high spoilage rates and low margins, although blending the fruit into smoothies, a technique the Vietnamese seem to have pioneered, allows cart operators to charge more for it.
Proper pushcart etiquette dictates that you not sell the same thing on the same corner as another vendor. A moral claim to a spot is so valuable that it may be inherited; some spots are passed down through generations, while some are bought and sold. If a disrespectful intruder muscles his way onto one’s turf, the available remedies are to arrive at the spot earlier or sell the same product cheaper. The city decides which blocks are open and closed to vending and when.
Carts are traditionally topped with the familiar blue-and-yellow umbrella pioneered by Sabrett. Recently, however, several entrepreneurs took note of the fact that the carts are exempt from the law against street advertising in New York. A quick-thinking company named PromoCart has been charging large businesses (such as Chase) $700 a cart a month for these ad placements, tossing vendors a one-time fee of $10 for each one and pocketing the considerable difference.
There are no official standards regarding the quality of the meat (or other products) sold at street carts. It’s effectively up to the vendor. That said, a degree of quality control is built into the system. Most ingredients come from a few well-known and reputable wholesalers, such as Sabrett, that sell to the garages, the owners of which then supply vendors. A few vendors use premium ingredients, but they charge accordingly.
How clean are the carts? Every cart is inspected at least once a year by a Health Department inspector, who checks to see that the operator cooks food at the proper temperature, doesn’t sell spoiled food, and has a proper water supply for hand-washing. Carts are also inspected randomly. Most garages have special “showers” where carts are hosed down at the end of each day, and fines—as high as $1,000 for certain violations—act as an incentive for proper hygiene. Still, garages and carts are only as clean as their operators keep them. A number of garages have been shut down recently, as part of the Health Department’s overall crackdown on restaurants, for unsanitary conditions including the presence of mice and rats.
Want to know if the hot dogs are really hot? If the soft pretzels are really soft? Whatever you do, don’t touch the goods before you buy. Once you’ve touched something, the vendor can’t sell it (and if he does, you’ve slimed a fellow citizen). Instead, just ask nicely. If you get a false answer, you’ve got the moral high ground to ask for a refund. A good way to bargain with a vendor is to ask, “Can you give me the New York price?” It’s funny, and the quarter or so that the vendor will knock off can make both of you feel a touch of the us-against-the-tourists camaraderie.