Risky Business for UES Street Food Vendors

As the city reopens, a return to fewer customers and greater health concerns

16 Jul 2020 | 02:10

At 6 a.m., Hanashit, who declined to share his full name, sets up his breakfast stand at Park Avenue and 86th Street. He stocks it with powdered donuts, blueberry muffins, chocolate croissants and egg rolls. Then, he waits.

As the sun rises, people stop for black coffee or a bagel. But most of the time, the street is empty. By 1 p.m., the 56-year-old is ready to leave.

“Before the pandemic, I could make more than $500 every day,” Hanashit said. “Now? Less than $200.”

Ninety percent of the over 20,000 street vendors in New York City closed their carts when the coronavirus shut down the city in March, estimates the Street Vendor Project (SVP), an organization that advocates for street vendor rights. By July, most have returned to work. They face fewer customers, high health risks and exclusion from the city’s relief and recovery efforts.

Food vendors’ livelihoods depend on foot traffic. Since returning to his breakfast cart at Madison and 86th, Mohamed Zidan, 39, makes only a quarter of his revenue before the pandemic. It is barely enough to pay the rent for his cart and food vending permit, cleaning supplies, inventory, and his bills, Zidan said.

Muhammad Sali, 38, has worked at a Halal cart on Fifth Ave. and 79th St. for four years. In past summers, the cart earned up to $1,300 a day from Museum Mile tourists, and $600 in the winter. Now, the cart makes $300, and his $80 daily salary is half of what it used to be.

“No people, no business, no work,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Sali’s employer ran two carts with three employees. Presently, they alternate shifts in one cart, each working two or three days a week.

It costs about $400 to run the cart every day, between Sali’s salary, the pay for the driver who transports the cart, and food supplies. His employer, whom Sali knows only as Fred, loses over $100 every week. He keeps the cart open with savings from past summers to support Sali and the other employees, and because he does not want to lose his permit or the vending spot.

Khaled, who declined to share his full name, serves chicken on rice and lamb gyros at his Second Ave. and 86th cart, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. In the past two years, he worked until 3 a.m. and received a daily salary of $160, plus tips.

Now, his salary is $120 and the cart makes $300 a day, less than half its revenue before the pandemic. His usual customers from the nearby Chase bank, CVS, and Fairway market have not fully returned. The money is enough for Khaled’s employer to cover the cost of running the cart, but not to generate any profit.

“[The $120 salary] is not enough for me to achieve my dreams,” Khaled said, “but this year I know I’m not going to make much money. I’m just trying to work.”

Health Risks

Street food vendors also have limited options for protecting themselves from the coronavirus. They and their customers interact with little social distance and most vendors only take cash, another way germs spread.

Every vendor wears a mask and gloves; Sali finishes a box of them every two days. His 4-year-old and 1-year-old rush to him when he returns home, but he has to clean himself and wash his clothes in a separate room before he sees them.

Khaled posted signs on his cart that urge patrons to keep six feet away whenever possible. After every customer, Zidan sprays disinfectant on his gloved hands and the metal surfaces of his stand.

“I don’t want to bring the virus to my kids,” he said, referring to his three children, ages 8, 4 and 1.

Vendors face another risk: displacement. Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director of the SVP, says some people have lost their vending spot due to the city’s Open Restaurant Program. Since June, the city issued over 7,000 permits to restaurants for seating customers outdoors. However, the policy did not ensure that vendors’ spaces will be protected.

The Open Restaurant Program also highlights the discrepancy between how city government treats restaurants and vendors. There has been a city wide limit on food vending permits since 1979. With only 5,000 available and a decades-long waiting list, the cap has created an underground market where $200 permits sell for upwards of $15,000.

“It is unfair to street vendors who have fought tooth and nail for the ability to operate their businesses, in a way that’s recognized as both legitimate and contributing to the culture and economy of New York,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said.

Sali wants a permit to open his own cart and generate more income, but the wait time makes that improbable. Khaled’s employer must spend $25,000 every two years to rent a permit, a cost that will become even harder to bear due to the pandemic.

Unemployment Insurance

Even so, vendors prefer the current situation over the months from March to June, when they had to close their businesses. Some, like Zidan and Sali, received government unemployment insurance. Others, like Khaled, could not.

“A significant portion of vendors do not have immigration status, so that immediately excludes them from any type of governmental support that exists currently,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said.

Khaled is applying for citizenship, but he is currently ineligible for any government aid, and relies on relatives in Egypt for economic support.

Sali has gotten a $2,400 stimulus check and $650 in weekly unemployment insurance, which ends this month.

“I have a monthly salary of $960,” he said. “I’m not sure how I can keep paying my $1,800 rent and support my family.”

Few vendors have been able to apply for small business loans or grants, such as the Paycheck Protection Program or the Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Some have no records of their business transactions due to their cash-based operations, while others lack access to technology.

“Who we’re seeing get the loans are Carnegie Hall, Wall Street firms, major corporations,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said, “but we’re not seeing businesses who are the most impacted and most at risk of not being able to stay open.”

The SVP is supporting vendors through a crowdsourced Street Vendor COVID-19 Emergency Fund and meal distributions with State Senator Jessica Ramos.

They are also advocating for small businesses grants that prioritize street vendors, as well as Intro 1116, legislation that would lift the cap on food vending permits. It is currently before the City Council with a majority support of 30 council members, who are calling on City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to bring it for a vote.

Now that they are back, vendors sell bean burritos, falafel sandwiches, chili dogs, and cheesy fries, in hopes that they will soon have face-to-face interactions with more customers.

“Maybe next month there will be more people, but it’s going to take a long time, at least until next summer, before things go back to normal,” Hanashit said.

“This year I know I’m not going to make much money. I’m just trying to work.” Khaled, street food vendor