‘Game Over’: Food Trucks Adapt to Changing City

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Around 11:30 a.m. in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, July, a queue began to form for Uncle Gussy’s food truck.

Nicko Karagiorgos, the sociable co-owner of the dining car, greeted patrons as the truck served platters of hot rolls and fragrant chicken to customers emerging from the stylish office towers nearby. How are the kids? Did your friends like the food last time?

But he soon got to his real questions: When is your office fully reopening? When do workers return?

For Mr. Karagiorgos and thousands of other food trucks and vendors in New York City, their shot at making meaningful profits—or, in some cases, even making it worthwhile to pull their car into town—depends on when the office buildings are built. it fills with workers and returns in significant numbers of tourists.

Food trucks and wheelbarrow vendors are part of the city’s fabric, making them quick and inexpensive options for hungry office workers, retail workers, students, and out-of-town visitors looking for everything from chicken to rice, coffee to egg sandwiches, lobster rolls and even lobster sandwiches. steak dishes. But for now, these sellers are primarily watching and waiting.

Some offices have started bringing back employees and there has been an increase in tourists, but much of the usual client base has yet to reappear. And while many New York City offices expect to bring back more employees in the fall, the hybrid model of being able to work from home several days a week is a worry for these vendors. Meanwhile, Covid-19 cases in New York City began to rise at an astonishing rate. an average of 203 percent within the last 14 days.

“I will never do what I did before Covid. This game is over,” said Mr. Karagiorgos, 44. “We have to admit it and hurry a little more. It’s a young man’s game. The hours are long. I’m up all day but I’ll do anything. If you want me to juggle, I’ll juggle.”

In some ways, the city’s food trucks may have weathered the pandemic better than some of their restaurant counterparts because of their mobility. When competing with each other, they abide by a code of honor to respect other trucks’ long-standing parking spaces. Many share information with each other on where to find customers.

“During this pandemic, several food trucks came together and learned about each other’s journeys,” said Eden Egziabher, owner of Makina Cafe, which offers a mix of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Italian cuisines. “They would tell us not to go to a certain place because he hadn’t quite returned yet.”

Ms. Egziabher has recently decided not to return to Midtown until September when she thinks more office workers will return.

The past year has been tough, especially for the small food carts and vendors. Many are new immigrants who obtained the $200 city-issued permit from the underground market, paying the permit holder as much as $25,000 over two years, even during the pandemic. (The city hopes to eliminate the underground trade. 400 new permits per year, said it will not be traded in an underground market in the next 10 years. There are currently only 2,800.)

“Most of the vendors are working and have seen a small amount of purchases in the last few months, but others are just waiting because even setting up the coffee or falafel cart in Midtown is too expensive,” said Mohamed Attia. Managing director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. Vendors must not only pay for the food and drink they stock each day, but also for an SUV or pickup truck between $50 and $80 a day to transport the car back and forth from warehouses in Queens and elsewhere.

“Most have to spend $300 a day just to open doors and if you don’t see these types of sales you’re going to lose money,” Mr Attia said.

Arriving in New York from Bangladesh in 1998, MD Alam pays $18,000 every two years to anyone who has permission to use his mobile car, Royal Grill Halal Food, from a corner of 44th Street and Avenue of the Americas.

Before the pandemic, their sales were $3,000 a day. Now Mr. Alam is making a profit of $50 per day after paying $350 in operating expenses.

“I need the offices to be open so I can get back to my old self,” said Mr. Alam. “The city is dead because everyone is at home.”

Dennis Apreza, owner of the El Toro Rojo truck, said he had to leave Midtown during the pandemic as activities in the area fell and he lost more than half of his sales. Mr. Apreza moved out of town, closer to Columbia University, where he found more clients, mostly students who lived nearby.

“In a small business, you can’t keep trying the same spot for more than a week,” said Mr. Apreza. “We only go to Midtown once a week because it’s not quite there yet.”

Apart from a few crises and startups, including an office job for several years, Mr. Karagiorgos has been selling groceries on the streets of New York since he started working on his uncle’s hot dog cart in the 1980s when he was 10 years old. His uncle’s car was on 51st Street and Park Avenue, and he also sold Greek sausage, spinach fritters, and souvlaki platters. He and his brother took over the car in 2007 and expanded to a truck the next year.

From her corner, Ms. Karagiorgos saw the real-world effects of the rise and fall of Wall Street, the real estate market, and other bubbles. Its clients are company executives and mailroom workers.

When Covid hit last year and New York City closed, Mr. Karagiorgos parked his truck in April and waited. He connected with the New York Food Truck Association, which began arranging trucks to feed city hospital workers (donations funded their meals). He then began organizing weekend trips out of town to accommodate bar mitzvahs and weddings. In recent weeks, the association, which has about 80 members with 125 food trucks, has organized trucks to have lunch for company employees returning to the office.

“We’re insanely busy right now. We’re going to have eight or nine trucks that spin three times a week at Goldman Sachs all summer and feed 8,000 employees,” said Ben Goldberg, co-founder and president of the New York Food Truck Association. Companies are trying to lure people back into the office.”

While such events help Mr. Karagriorgos gain, they are not enough to make up for the loss of the regular lunch crowd in Midtown. He said he’s back to about 40 percent of his pre-Covid business, but the cost of chicken and other foods has skyrocketed in recent months. Monday and Friday are her worst days when fewer people go to the office.

“We raised our prices,” he said. “We’re almost $10 per gyroscope right now, but what are you going to do?”

With this in mind, Mr. Karagriogos hastens to create Plan B. He works with a food dispenser to pack Uncle Gussy’s Souvlaki and sell it directly to consumers on a Skewer whether they go to the office or not.

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