At around 11:30 a.m. on a sultry July Wednesday in midtown Manhattan, the line began to form for Uncle Gussy’s food truck.
While the truck served warm gyros and fragrant chicken platters to customers coming from the elegant office towers nearby, Nicko Karagiorgos, the sociable co-owner of the food truck, greeted his regulars. How are the kids Did your friends like the food last time?
But he soon got to his real questions: When will your office fully open again? When do the workers return?
For Mr. Karagiorgos and thousands of other food trucks and vendors in New York City, when they make meaningful profits – or even lug their carts into town in some cases – when they fill office buildings with workers and tourists come in considerable numbers.
Food trucks and cart vendors are part of the city, quick and affordable options for hungry office workers, retail workers, students, and out-of-town visitors looking for everything from chicken and rice to coffee and egg sandwiches to lobster rolls and even steak meals. But at the moment these providers are primarily watching and waiting.
Some offices have started pulling back staff and there has been a surge in tourists, but most of the usual customer base has not reappeared. And while many New York City offices are expecting to hire more people this fall, the hybrid model of being able to work from home a few days a week is worrying for these vendors. New York City’s Covid-19 cases have increased an average of 203 percent in the past 14 days.
“I will never do what I did before Covid again. It’s game over, “said Mr Karagiorgos, 44.” We have to accept that and go a little harder. This is a game for young men. The hours are long. I’m on my feet all day, but I’ll do anything. If you want me to juggle, I will juggle. “
In some ways, the city’s food trucks may have weathered the pandemic better than some of their restaurant counterparts due to their mobility. As they compete with one another, they follow a code of ethics on how to respect the long-term parking spaces of other trucks. Many also share information about where to find customers.
“During this pandemic, several food trucks came together and we learned about each other’s trips,” said Eden Egziabher, owner of Makina Cafe, a truck that serves a mix of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Italian cuisine. “They told us not to go to a certain place because it hadn’t come back completely.”
Ms. Egziabher recently decided not to return to Midtown until September, when she believes more office workers will be returning.
Last year, however, was particularly difficult for the smaller food trucks and vendors. Many are new immigrants who often received the city-issued $ 200 underground market permit and paid the person holding the permit up to $ 25,000 over two years even during the pandemic. (The city hopes to eliminate underground trade by issuing 400 new permits annually over the next 10 years that it believes cannot be traded in an underground market. There are currently only 2,800.)
“Most of the salespeople are working and have seen a small number of pickups in the past few months, but others are just waiting because even setting up the coffee or falafel cart in Midtown costs too much,” said Mohamed Attia. Managing Director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. In addition to paying for the groceries and drinks they stock each day, sellers also have to pay for an SUV or van between $ 50 and $ 80 a day to transport the car from depots in Queens and elsewhere .
Daily business briefing
July 20, 2021, 3:01 p.m. ET
“Most have to spend $ 300 a day just to open the doors, and if you don’t see these kinds of sales, you’re going to lose money,” said Attia.
MD Alam, who came to New York from Bangladesh in 1998, pays $ 18,000 every two years to the person licensed to operate his Royal Grill Halal Food mobile cart on the corner of 44th Street and Avenue of the Americas.
Before the pandemic, its sales were $ 3,000 a day. Now Mr. Alam is barely making $ 50 a day in profit after paying $ 350 in operating expenses.
“The offices need to be open so I can go back to my previous state,” said Mr. Alam. “The city is dead because everyone is at home.”
Dennis Apreza, owner of El Toro Rojo truck, said he had to leave Midtown because activity in the area collapsed during the pandemic and he lost more than half of his sales. Mr. Apreza moved to Uptown, near Columbia University, where he found more customers, mostly students, who lived nearby.
“In a small business, you can’t afford to try the same place for more than a week,” said Mr. Apreza. “We only go to Midtown once a week because it’s not that far yet.”
Aside from a few beginnings, including an office job for a few years, Mr. Karagiorgos has been selling groceries on the streets of New York City since he started working in his uncle’s hot dog cart in the 1980s when he was 10 on 51st Street and Park Avenue and also sold Greek sausage, spinach pie, and souvlaki platters. He and his brother took over the car in 2007 and expanded it into a truck the next year.
From his corner, Mr. Karagiorgos has seen the real impact of Wall Street booms and busts, the housing market and other bubbles. His customers are the CEOs and the post office employees.
When Covid hit last year and New York City closed, Mr Karagiorgos parked his truck and waited in April. He allied with the New York Food Truck Association, which began making sure the trucks feed the city hospital staff (donations funded their meals). Then she started organizing them on weekends out of town to hold bar mitzvahs and weddings. In the past few weeks, the association, which has around 80 members and around 125 food trucks, has made sure that the trucks provide lunch for the company employees returning to the office.
“We’re crazy busy now. Throughout the summer, eight or nine trucks will rotate three times a week at Goldman Sachs, serving 8,000 employees, ”said Ben Goldberg, co-founder and president of the New York Food Truck Association. “Everyone wants to have organized reintegration parties. The companies are trying to lure people back into the office. “
While these types of events help Mr. Karagiorgos’ bottom line, they are not enough to make up for the loss of his normal midtown lunch crowd. He said he was back at about 40 percent of his business before Covid, but the cost of chicken and other groceries had skyrocketed in recent months. Monday and Friday, when even fewer people go to the office, are his worst days.
“We have increased our prices,” he says. “We’re almost $ 10 a top right now, but what are you going to do?”
Against this background, Mr Karagiorgos is trying to draw up his Plan B. He works with a grocer to skewer Uncle Gussy’s souvlaki and sell it directly to consumers, whether they go to the office or not.