The Pushcart Prize

Adam Perry Lang's morning cart prep, on 46th Street outside his restaurant Daisy May's.Photo: Andrew Hetherington

Having a cart on the sidewalk is about as entry-level a place in the city’s noncriminal economy as you can get. Low overhead, nothing but foot traffic, and, well, even in the depths of a recession, people have to eat lunch. Streetcart peddling was once such an assured lowest-common-denominator source of income in New York that the state guaranteed street-vending permits to soldiers returning from the Civil War. Today, for Adam Perry Lang, a 34-year-old Daniel Boulud–trained chef, it’s not an easy business to break into. The city issues only 3,000 “mobile food vending” permits. Like taxi medallions, their intrinsic value has inspired a shadow economy where, vendors say, the city’s prohibition against subletting permits is often ignored. Even if an enterprising sort manages to land a permit, wrangling a legal, busy spot is next to impossible—much less nine of them, as Lang plans to have for his Daisy May’s BBQ USA carts by the end of summer. Many streets are off-limits, and pride of place on the legal ones is hotly contested: To keep the peace, you can’t sell what the guy next to you sells, and you might need to delicately negotiate some kind of turf-sharing arrangement. There’s a coffee cart that occupies Lang’s space at 40 Wall Street in the morning. It pulls out around 10:30, just in time for Daisy May’s to dock for the lunch crowd.

Lang, an immigrant from Le Cirque, is competing with vendors who have been defending their spot for more than a decade. Still, by the end of the summer, he’ll have quadrupled his investment in the street market—rolling out a wagon train of five new chili-and-barbecue carts to add to the four he’s set up since February. “It’s a hassle,” he says, pausing to look up Eleventh Avenue, where Daisy May’s is located. “It’s a game. You have to respect your neighbors, people who’ve been out there ten, twenty years. I don’t enjoy the fight. You only fight if you have to.” He has a cart on 50th Street and Sixth Avenue, where nine other vendors sell everything from tacos to gyros, fruit to nuts. Most sell soda, so the only drink on Lang’s menu is his fresh-brewed iced tea. “And you sure don’t sell hot dogs. What are you going to do, just yell ‘Get yer hot dogs here!’ louder than the guy next to you?”

In any case, the hot dog is not the street food of the future. With a competitive price freeze on frankfurters, there’s a quest for new, higher-margin foods. “It’s still $1, $1.50 for a hot dog,” says Lang’s cart manager, Jeffrey Cicio. “Right now, the only guys doing really well are some of the guys selling chicken over rice.” It’s a high-margin dish that also carries the whiff of being healthy. “Hot dogs aren’t cheap. They used to be 18 cents each, but now they’re 42. And you still sell it for $2 with soda.” Cicio says that the $300 daily take hasn’t changed since the late 1980s.

Lang’s goal isn’t an immigrant’s day wage, though. In an industry plagued with failure, carts are a lower-cost way to food-service success. With a restaurant, Lang says, “there’s no way to open up five, six locations after being in business for one year. You have to think about cash flow.” Plus, “I wanted a product that was recession-proof.” But what he has to peddle is still not a bargain, exactly. At $8 a pulled-pork sandwich, he says, “I knew I had the highest-ticket items out there.” And he isn’t afraid to use the word artisanal to describe ingredients.

“Hot dogs aren’t cheap. They used to be 18 cents each, but now they’re 42. And you still sell it for $2 with a soda.”

And so street food has finally learned from Cosí, Hale & Hearty, Starbucks, and any number of other branded lunchtime purveyors of quasi-gourmet versions of what was once much less expensive. Of course, this customer has certain hygiene expectations. “I have it set up so that the guy who handles the money never touches the food,” says Lang. “It’s modular.”

Not the usual concerns of a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America who worked as a billionaire’s private chef. But after four years of paid globetrotting, the Long Islander moved home and, last August, opened his 700-square-foot, no-seat Daisy May’s. A cowboy at the billionaire’s ranch in New Mexico helped inspire him. “He was breaking horses with no saddles and kicking puppies all day,” Lang says. “And then he was a cook in an apron. It just touched something in me.”

He might not have taken it to the streets if it hadn’t been for Cicio, who knew which New York puppies to kick to get things done. Cicio’s family business, Hot Dog’n Boys, was one of several cart cartels in the eighties and early nineties: The Cicios controlled 200 citywide permits. But in 1995, Mayor Giuliani limited the number of permits to one per operator, and Cicio’s family was left with only the World Trade Center concession—which it then lost on 9/11. Cicio eventually sold his remaining three tumbrels to Lang, forming the basis of his business. His permits hinge on a city policy loophole. According to a Health Department spokesperson, there isn’t much turnover when they expire (every two years), but the “sharing” of permits is okay: “As long as you have a food-handling license, you can operate someone else’s cart. It’s like sharing a car.”

And up on West 60th Street, street-cart manufacturer Andy Hor of Cyber Metal Tech will set you up with the latest, flashiest model. “I’m asking you, can you every day eat hot dog?” he asks over the sizzle of welding. “Once a week, fine. Before 9/11, there were more tourist, we sell the same model, the hot-dog cart. But now depend on local people. That’s where all this business comes from.” He opens up a red binder, flipping through pages of his designs, each customizable to what the peddler needs. There are six styles of peanut cart alone. He stops at the barbecue-vending-cart blueprint: “This model is getting popular.”

Popularity is both a threat to and a driver of Lang’s business. The uniqueness of his fare assures him a bit of a sidewalk monopoly—and an identity of his own. “If I opened another sandwich shop, if it was great, I’d get ripped off by Subway.”

His plan is to eventually launch the carts nationwide, pushing barbecue through revived downtown pedestrian zones. The experiment in artisanal Ray Kroc–ism clearly excites him as he crunches up a Poland Spring bottle. But he still has his culinary-snob defensiveness. “This is chef’s food,” he insists, noting that he catered Daniel Boulud’s holiday party. “Simple, good. Like the perfect French fry. What, do you think chefs eat foie gras when they’re not working?”

The Pushcart Prize