The citywide shutdowns in March due to the growing spread of COVID-19 in NYC decimated the street vending community. Hundreds stopped working as foot traffic dried up and office goers stopped commuting. In parts of Queens, though, street food vendors have been coming back in greater numbers in recent months.
In Jackson Heights and Corona — two of the largest street food communities in NYC and also some of the areas hardest hit by the novel coronavirus — many vendors were forced to return to work just a month or two after shutting down in March.
Many Jackson Heights and Corona vendors are the sole caretakers in their family, according to Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, a non-profit that represents thousands of street vendors in the city. With no end in sight to the pandemic, many vendors say they have no choice but to continue to drum up whatever little business they can to pay the bills.
Fears of contracting Covid-19 “led to a lot of folks staying home, but then there’s the issue of not having any money to pay rent, not having any support, not being eligible for federal relief for some folks,” says Kaufman-Gutierrez. “And so that really was for a lot of people, the reason why they went back out, not just to provide essential services [as food purveyors].”
Peruvian food truck Antojitos Doña Fela is one such vendor. With a $250 monthly garage rental fee and mortgage payments, co-owner Stephanie Sucasaca says she and her family returned to operating the truck in April, even as they could hear ambulances constantly making their way to and from the nearby Elmhurst Hospital.
“The bills were a huge motivator for us to go back out and put ourselves at risk,” says Sucasaca. “We had to do this because our [government] system didn’t really create a plan to support small business vendors.”
Unlike restaurant and bar owners, many street food vendors were shut out of federal coronavirus-related financial relief efforts due to many of them being sole proprietors or because of their status as undocumented workers. While vendors can apply for certain small business loans provided by the city, most vendors live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have the means to take on loans. Furthermore, New York’s official dining guidelines such as the Open Restaurant Program have not addressed the specific concerns of vendors, driving the Street Vendor Project to fill in this gap as they informed vendors about the use of plastic barriers and orange cones for social distancing.
The lack of assistance prompted Evelia Coyotzi — who has been running a popular tamales food cart underneath the central Junction Boulevard subway station in Corona since 2002 — to make a return to work in May. Coyotzi typically sold 800 tamales a day prior to the pandemic, but that number has now dropped to between 300 and 500 per day.
A large part of it is the drop in commuters, she says, and the reduced hours on the subway, which now stops service between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“The people who used to work in the city, like in construction, many had to take the subway early,” says Coyotzi. “Now these people aren’t coming. My fear is having to stop my business because we don’t have enough clients.”
Many like Antojitos are beginning to adapt to this new reality. The food truck implemented new lunch hours and delivery service in April to help customers quarantining at home. “A lot of people wanted a break from cooking and so our variety of lunches came out of quarantine,” says Sucasaca. Pesto pasta with steak, breaded chicken with rice, and trio marino (a combination platter of three seafood dishes), are all popular additions to this new lunch menu.
The vendors’ return in Jackson Heights and Corona was also buoyed by the efforts of local elected officials like State Senator Jessica Ramos(D). Her office partnered with the Street Vendor Project and the non-profit Hispanic Federation to start a meal giveaway service for people in need in the neighborhood.
For the past 13 weeks, this partnership has allowed 34 vendors to cook hundreds of meals each week that have served more than 13,000 families since the start of the operation, according to the state senator’s office.
“It’s not just the vendors, but it’s also their customers, right? Because there’s been no income for three months,” says Ramos, many of whose constituents are undocumented immigrants without access to federal aid.
For some, like Antojitos, a recent increase in foot traffic has also boosted sales. Sucasaca says the food truck is getting more pick-up sandwich orders as people make their way to the beach.
“Last week, we had regular sales, like pre-Covid,” says Sucasaca. “The week before was really low so obviously there’s ups and downs.”
The return of popular food trucks like Birria-Landia has also encouraged more people to frequent street vendors. On a recent weekday, there was a long socially distanced line and a 30-minute wait to get the food truck’s hit birria-style tacos. And for others like Coyotzi of Evelia’s Tamales, the drive to continue is largely propped up by the regulars who are now coming back.
“People are used to seeing us here, like we belong there,” says Evelia Coyotzi. “If we don’t come out, people will ask, ‘Where did we go?’”