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Food Carts Rule Midtown's Street Lunch Scene After Trucks Get the Boot

By Jill Colvin | August 22, 2011 8:16am
Many of the food carts have been around for years.
Many of the food carts have been around for years.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — With police cracking down on a new generation of high-end food trucks in Midtown, old-fashioned food carts now rule the roads.

Just months ago, the blocks between Sixth and Seventh avenues in the low to mid-fifties buzzed with food trucks selling everything from crepes to fresh-made tacos and Cevap sandwiches geared to hungry office workers looking for a change from the every day.

Many of the trucks earned loyal followings, with devotees tracking their weekly schedules via Twitter and lining up by the dozen for their fix.

But as trucks have been pushed out, thanks to renewed police enforcement of a decades-old rule barring them from vending from metered parking spots, food carts, which operate from the sidewalk instead of the street, have quietly held their ground.

It’s not unusual now to see ten to a dozen carts, selling Halal food, hot dogs, fruit and smoothies, parked side-to-side on a single block, turning sidewalks into a carnival of brightly colored signs, smoky smells, and eager vendors trying to sell.

“It’s always like this,” said Magdy Shahin, of King Tut Halal Food, which has been around since 1995, as he gestured to the line of carts snaking down West 50th Street west from Sixth Avenue.

He and others said that operating alongside the trucks had been a huge frustration for cart operators, because the trucks take up so much space and lure customers from the long-established carts.

“We don’t like the trucks… They bother us,” said Shahin, 52. “They come one or two days only and they kill the business for us.”

Jose Martinez and Ivoane Romero, who have run the Bora a La Carte taco truck for the past 10 years, agreed the trucks had taken a big chunk out of their bottom line. They estimated they make about $100 more each day the trucks are gone.

Martinez, 46, said he feels the trucks have an unfair advantage because they're larger and can offer a bigger selection.

“The trucks come and they take all the business,” he said.

But the pair have also noticed something else: an influx of new carts moving into the neighborhood. While some long-standing carts have simply shifted spots, taking spaces that have opened up, newcomers have also arrived, offering some of the same fare that made the trucks so temping.

As DNAinfo reported last month, the popular Wafels & Dinges Belgian waffle truck recently traded its truck for a cart during its Friday service on West 52nd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. The fried dough vendor also has a cart parked on the sidewalk outside the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

The 52nd Street cart has since been joined by other converts, including the proprietors of the hugely popular Desi Food Truck, who switched to a cart, which they’ve named the “Kati Cart,” about a month ago, because of the police crackdown, according to its owner.

The truck had been slapped with several $65 tickets a week over the past three months, said proprietor Hashim Ali, 26, who said he’s definitely seen more carts on the road since the crackdown began.

Carts are not subject to the same meter rules because they do not park on the street.

According to the Department of Health, which regulates the industry, however, permitted vendors, who are capped at 5,100, are barred from selling within 20 feet of a building entrance, on a sidewalk less than 12 feet across, and close to a crosswalk.

Not all cart operators are against the food truck competition. At least one vendor said he misses the trucks, which he said helped to attract hungry lunch-goers to the quieter West 51st Street.

“People get more choice,” said Kevin Jeon, 41, an operator of one of the Bapcha Korean food carts, which have been serving the neighborhood for years.

"More people came when they were here."