Monday, May 20

What’s behind a $10 chicken and rice from a cart? An $18,000 permit.

But Mousa focused on one number: 3,892. That was his position on the waiting list of a New York food vendor.

Like thousands of street food vendors in the city, Mr Mousa is unable to get permission for his cart, Halal Dishes. A long-standing cap limited the number of permits to 5,100, before a 2021 law began allowing 445 new permits per year for a decade. So far, the city has issued 71 new permits.

According to the city’s health department, nearly 9,500 people were on the waiting list as of January. A spokesperson said it had issued 1,074 applications – a prerequisite for authorization – since the law was enacted, but the majority of applicants have yet to complete the process.

While he waits, Mr. Mousa said he and his business partner pay $18,000 in cash every two years to rent their permit from a Bronx cab driver who Mr. Mousa said got it decades ago for a few hundred dollars. Mr Mousa said such agreements are the only way many vendors, who otherwise follow regulations, can avoid fines and confiscation of their carts.

Mr. Mousa hopes to negotiate the same price this summer, but expects the permit holder will try to increase it.

“What can I do?” Mr. Mousa said, adding: “He has what I need.”

That’s the math of the chicken and rice — a pile of heavily spiced boneless chicken with yellow rice and a side salad — that swept the city in the 1980s, after a wave of Egyptian immigrants arrived.

Mr Mousa, 30, also Egyptian, has increased the price of the dish by 67% since 2020. He said he had been out of business for over a year, working as a food delivery driver.

Running the cart includes tracking dozens of expenses, starting with saving $750 monthly for the permit. The company, which relies on students, office workers and construction workers, operates two 10-hour shifts, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. In the winter, Mr. Mousa and two cooks (paid $150 a day) work Wednesday through Sunday; after Easter they work every day.

Mr. Mousa also pays $450 a month for space in a garage and the kitchen of a commissary in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to store his cart and ingredients. He spends $30 a day for a worker to clean the wagon and $65 to have a driver transport it to and from Lower Manhattan.

Most of the cooking takes place in the 5 x 10 foot metal cart. A $2,000 generator powers a small refrigerator; the flat grill and fryer burn daily through a $25 propane tank. An $18 bag of basmati rice is usually cooked by the commissaries.

In the colder months, the company might earn $500 a day, Mousa said — a net loss, but enough to survive until the summer, when sales range from $700 to $1,400 a day. Chicken with rice is the most popular dish, accounting for two-thirds of revenue.

New York is the only major American city that imposes a limit on food vendor permits, said John Rennie Short, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But this could change.

In December, city council members introduced a bill to increase the number of new permits issued each year – from 445 to 1,500 – and remove the limit after five years.

Mohamed Attia, CEO of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, said the changes would be transformative.

Opponents argue that eliminating the cap could create overcrowding and safety problems.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the city is reviewing the legislation.

For Mr. Mousa, who lives with his wife and child in Jersey City, NJ, a legitimate permit could save him significant amounts of money. He said he also has an ownership interest in two nearby carts that also use borrowed permits.

Enough savings, perhaps, to kick-start his retirement. “When I’m fifty,” he said, “I’ll fish on a lake.”

Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrea Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development of Gabriele Gianordoli AND Aliza Aufrichtig.