Cooking Up a Storm on Morningside Heights (Not!)

Ever since winter storm Janus slammed New York City with frigid temperatures, Swami, the owner and chef of the Dosa Cart on 116th and Broadway, has lost money as customers stay out of the cold and away from his cart. (Asha Mahadevan/NY City Lens)

Ever since winter storm Janus slammed New York City with frigid temperatures, Swami, the owner and chef of the Dosa Cart on 116th and Broadway, has lost money as customers stay out of the cold and away from his cart. (Asha Mahadevan/NY City Lens)

The oil sizzles on the hot iron skillet. The rising steam offers a little warmth on an otherwise frigid and windy day. But there’s nobody lining up near the food cart to appreciate the delicious smells emerging from the Dosa Cart on 116th and Broadway.

Passersby rush past it in their hurry to get indoors. The cart’s owner and chef, who only goes by the name Swami, slides open one of the transparent plastic windows and calls in broken English to a woman walking by. “What do you want, lady? What do you want today?” The woman, dressed in a thick coat with a scarf wrapped around the lower part of her face, turns and waves to him, but does not stop to buy anything.

Swami sighs. He serves 13 dishes, of which nine are different varieties of dosa (an Indian pancake made from rice and lentils) and his cart is somewhat of an icon for food cart lovers. He has even been profiled in the Village Voice. He proudly unfolds a tattered copy of a printout of his profile on the publication’s website and shows it off as he explains how the cold weather is ruining his business.

Ever since the city was hit by snowstorm Janus on Monday—and temperatures have stayed below 20 degrees, his regular customers have stayed away.

“In the summer, I have about 200 customers in day,” said Swami, who even employs an extra person to help out with the cooking during the warmer months. “Business falls every winter, because of the weather and the schools being closed. But I still get about 75 people in a day. This Tuesday, after the storm, I had only 35 customers.”

Not only did he fail to make a profit that day, he could not even break even. He had to get rid of all the food he had in his cart – potatoes, chicken, chick peas, rice and the dosa batter. “They had cost me $500,” he said. “I had to throw them in the garbage.” Swami makes his food fresh every morning in his garage in Queens. “I cannot use the previous day’s food the next day,” he said.

That is not the only trouble he had. The storm on Monday forced him to stay at home. On Tuesday evening, when his co-worker who helps him get the cart into Manhattan each morning came to pick him up, they found it extremely difficult to tow the cart all the way to Queens. “The tires skidded and the cart almost fell,” he said.

The drive usually takes them 30-35 minutes. That evening, it took a lot, lot longer. “I left at 7:30 pm and reached home only at 11 p.m.,” he said. The experience was so horrifying that his colleague refused to make the trip on Wednesday and Swami once again could not set up shop.

Yet, he is momentarily hopeful when another woman stops by to look at the menu posted on his cart. “What do you want lady?” he asks again, but she moves on. Swami sighs and slides his plastic windows shut.

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