Droves of New York City’s street food vendors have left the streets as New Yorkers increasingly stay at home with unprecedented restrictions on public life amid the novel coronavirus crisis. Though several vendors still remain in the outer boroughs, the ones in Manhattan have largely decamped due to a massive drop in foot traffic this past week.
Mohamed Attia — the head of the Street Food Vendor Project, a nonprofit that counts 2,300 vendors among its members, a majority of who are immigrants and people of color — tells Eater only a few hundred members are still out selling food as parts of the city have transformed into a virtual ghost town. And unlike restaurants, the stopgap of delivery or takeout isn’t an option for most, vendors say.
As New Yorkers start anticipating a shelter-in-place policy similar to one currently in place in the Bay Area, despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo denying the possibility, street food vendors say their business will only be impacted further, and many don’t think it’s financially feasible to keep trying to stay open.
“I made 20 bucks all day on Monday and that really doesn’t cover anything,” says Ahmed Ebrahim, who runs a hot dog cart at West 49th Street and Sixth Avenue. Ebrahim has not worked again since Monday. He says he noticed a dip in sales at the beginning of last week, and that business had basically come to a standstill over the weekend and this week.
“There is nothing out there for food vendors,” he added. “Restaurants can do delivery and takeout, but we don’t really have that option.”
For other vendors, supplies are starting to get scarce. As New Yorkers continue to stockpile at grocery stores, street food vendors are also beginning to feel the pinch. Thiru Kumar, who runs the popular New York Dosas cart in Washington Square Park, told Eater last week that he was having trouble getting rice and dal, ingredients that go into making dosas.
By Tuesday, he decided to close. “NYU students are all gone, and they are some of my best customers,” he says.
Some, though, say that stopping completely doesn’t feel like a viable option. MD Naeem Khandaker, who runs the Bangladeshi street food cart Tong, has closed his Jamaica, Queens location but will continue to operate in Jackson Heights — saying that it’s his duty to pay his sole employee for as long as he can, he says.
Business has fallen precipitously in the last 10 days: Tong usually gets 200 to 300 customers a day, but in recent days that number has dropped to about 50. But as long as the food cart gets at least a few customers, he wants to remain open. “How will he survive without this job?” he says of his employee. “This just isn’t fair.”
On Thursday, Los Angeles became the first major city nationwide to issue a ban on street food vendors amid the COVID-19 crisis, but a spokesperson for de Blasio tells Eater that there are no plans for a similar ban in NYC right now. The New York City Council echoed that sentiment, with a spokesperson telling Eater that “the council has no plans to limit street vendors.”
While street food carts don’t have to contend with high overheads in terms of rent or paying several staff members the way restaurants do, many vendors live paycheck to paycheck and expressed concerns to Eater that they won’t be able to make rent on their homes in the coming months. It’s one of the top concerns for vendors in this time of uncertainty, Attia tells Eater.
His nonprofit is calling on city officials to take a series of actions to protect vendors: The state tax department should waive any late fees for vendors filing later than the March 20th deadline, the group asks, and the city’s health department should waive outstanding tickets that have been issued since January this year, since many vendors don’t know when they’ll be able to go back to work.
Though there are reportedly more than 10,000 street food vendors in the city, so far conversations of COVID-19’s impact on the dining world have largely focused on restaurants and bars. The city is now offering interest-free loans to small businesses due to the ongoing crisis, but Attia says most vendors won’t have the ability to pay these loans off later on.
Still, some vendors are hopeful that city officials addressed their concerns.
“I was born in this city and I’ve worked here my whole life,” says Ebrahim. “I hope the city will take care of us.”
With additional reporting by Robert Sietsema