by Annie Wu, Younjoo Sang and Sybile Penhirin, NY City Lens
While most people on the streets of New York scurry to escape the vicious cold, our food vendors, who are an indelible part of the city’s streetscape, brave the weather to serve up a bit of warmth and nutrition and keep their incomes flowing. But it isn’t easy. Here’s how six of them cope.
Eat your breakfast
Mohamed Foud, 48, starts selling bagels, muffins, coffee and other American breakfast items every weekday morning — starting at 3 a.m. — from his pushcart, stationed between Centre and Walker Streets in downtown Manhattan. He says he begins the day so early because the correction officers working at the jail nearby, at 100 Centre Street, come for coffee. Foud has been at this location for 14 years and also owns a breakfast cart near Court Street in Brooklyn.
Though he has worked through many winters, this one is special. Foud says he hasn’t experienced such extreme cold weather since he came to the United States 30 years ago from Egypt— except once in 1996, when there was a similar big snowstorm and freezing temperatures afterwards. “Nobody gets used to the cold,” he jokes. “Only animals get used to the cold.”
To stay warm, Foud puts on lots of layers of clothing — “Nothing else helps in this weather, just layering” — particularly on his feet. He normally wears size 12 shoes, but he wears size 15 boots in the winter to fit all the pairs of socks he needs. “I spend 15 to 30 minutes putting on socks every morning. Other than that, winter is alright,” Foud said.
In this weather, Foud loses about 30 to 50 percent of his normal business “In this weather, people run,” he says. “But you put yourself in their shoes, and you would run to the office too.”
The cold also slows down his set-up procedure, because his hands get cold and cannot work as quickly. It took him 40 minutes today to get the cart ready, when it usually takes 20.
Most customers have been ordering hot coffee or hot sandwiches, he says. Foud operates a grill inside his cart, using a propane gas tank. That helps a bit.
Warmth from waffles
Jared Domingos, 27, works at the Waffles & Dinges food cart, which sells Belgian-style waffles at the southeast corner of Central Park at 5th Avenue and 59th Street. He runs the stand from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the waffle oven helps. The food cart does not have additional heating devices such as portable heaters.
Domingos also wears thermal clothes and multiple layers of clothing. “The hardest thing is the feet, because it’s a metal floor, and also there is no heat,” he said. “I have two pairs of socks on, and there’s even bags on my feet,” he said.
On Thursday, he said business was at its slowest since the first polar vortex a few weeks ago: “When it’s this cold out, people are just bundled up and want to get going.” The food cart sees around 100 customers a day on cold days like this, Domingos said, whereas in warmer months, he gets about 500.
For Waffles & Dinges employees, management decides whether the carts should not go out in cases of extreme cold and winter storms. “When we got down to the single digits several weeks ago, we didn’t come out,” Domingos said. “It was too cold.”
Alfredo Torres, meanwhile, makes his own decision about when to work, and during winter, his life evolves around The Weather Channel.
The first thing the 37-year-old man does when he wakes up is to turn on his TV and check the weather; it’s also the last thing he does before going to sleep. If temperatures are below 30 degrees, Torres usually doesn’t work. “If I work on those days, I’ll probably end up losing money,” he said.
Torres is one of the approximately 5,100 mobile food vendors operating in New York City. He has been selling fruits and vegetables on the corner of 96th Street and Amsterdam for more than 10 years. Winter can be tough for all of them, but fruit and vegetable vendors face a double penalty.
“My products get frozen very quickly. If costumers don’t buy them within a few hours, I have to throw them and I lose money,” said Torres. His most fragile merchandise? Bananas and cucumbers, he says.
Over the years, Torres has developed a technique to counter the cold: He leaves his fruits and vegetables in his truck until costumers ask for them. “But then my stall looks empty, so it doesn’t really attract people,” he said. Last Thursday, Torres tried a variation. To make his booth more appealing, he selected a few products to expose. He picked onions, celery, blueberries, bananas and cherries among others, and put them in plastic bags to add a layer of protection against the cold. But he said he was not sure that it did the trick.
Torres estimates the number of fruit and vegetable costumers drop by about 50 percent between December and February.
“There is less foot traffic during winter,” said Archana Dittakavi, 28, an attorney at The Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for street vendors and helping them with the legal process. “And in order to make money, fruit and vegetable vendors have to sell really high volumes because their profit margin is very low,” she explained.
During spring or summer, Torres says he often takes in more than $1,000 per day, but in winter that number is more likely to be around $600. “And that’s when I can work,” Torres adds. He has had to take two weeks off since the beginning of December — much more than usual.
The view from home
Talking over the phone last Thursday from his home in Jackson Heights in Queens, Mohammed Jabiullah said that it was not worth it for him to work on that day. “I worked last Monday but I was freezing all day and at the end I had to throw 40 percent of my products,” he said.
For now, the 40-year-old man is partly living on his savings from previous warmer seasons. But with three children to support, he doesn’t exclude looking for another job if the weather doesn’t get better. A few winters ago, he said, he got hired as a black car driver to compensate his meager sales.
Hot pot, please
On 116th Street and Broadway, Steven Yang, a resident of Flushing and the owner of a Chinese food cart, said business has been slow because of the cold weather. The students’ winter break at nearby Columbia University didn’t help business much either.
Yang started selling hot pot — a dish where raw meat and vegetables are cooked in hot broth — along with other Sichuan and Northeastern Chinese foods at this location three months ago. He said it’s impossible to stay warm in this weather. “But since we have this business, we have to stay here,” he said.
Yang’s dishes are kept hot by food warmers. “If the food wasn’t warm,’ he said, “people wouldn’t come here to buy it.”
Norman Allred, 56, runs a self-owned food cart that sells Middle Eastern street fare. The sign on his cart reads: “Owned and Operated by U.S. Army Disabled Veteran.” Allred, who has been an electronic technician, said he started the cart on 59th Street just this year. Why? “Boredom, freedom,” he answered simply. “I just wanted a little break from the workforce.”
As stated on his food cart sign, Allred served in the Air Force from 1976 to 1980 until he got injured. “I got hit by a jet blast,” he explained.
Allred’s food cart saw about 20 customers today, he said, down from about 30 on warmer days. He and his employee decide in the morning whether or not to brave the cold. “We’ve got thermal clothes on and there’s heat from the stoves,” he said. But lately he’s been thinking about a portable heater: “I should probably go to Home Depot and get it.”
Ice cream? Really?
Really. At the Haagen Dazs ice cream shop between Mott and Bayard Streets in Chinatown, a popular tourist stop, Roy, 31 and a resident of Queens, managed to sell five ice cream scoop orders to five tourists. It was around 4 p.m. on Thursday and these had been his only ice cream orders of the day.
Roy said the months of January through March are slow. Still, on an average winter day, he says he will sell around 10 or 15 scoops. “You’d be surprised,” Roy said. “It’s usually people from cold areas. They’re used to it anyways.”
The rest of the sales in winter are buoyed by ice cream cake orders. And throughout the day Thursday, most people came in for hot chocolate or coffee.
At the Big Gay Ice Cream shop in East Village, manager Cherie Davis said business is still fairly good on winter weekends, when a couple hundred people may drop by, though it’s been slower lately with the colder weather. By around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, she had filled 20 orders so far.
Pantila Chariyapisuthi, a master’s student at NYU, bought ice cream at the shop for herself and a friend on Thursday. Though she is more a fan of frozen yogurt, she said Big Gay Ice Cream’s soft serve was worth braving the cold.