At Halal Plates, a food cart in Lower Manhattan, a dish of chicken over rice costs $10. That’s a 67 percent increase from 2020, the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And while consumers may gripe over the increase, the owners of Halal Plates are facing a surge in prices, too. The chicken is nearly twice as expensive as it was in 2020. The white sauce that coats it is $4 more a gallon. Even the clamshell container it’s served in has jumped in price.
Stefanos Chen, who covers the New York economy for the Metro desk at The New York Times, recently wrote about Mahmoud Mousa, a co-owner of Halal Plates. Mr. Chen’s article explored the forces that drive up costs for Mr. Mousa and other vendors. A big one: Food carts need a permit to operate, but only so many are available and the city has been slow to release more. Many cart owners say they feel forced to obtain a permit through illegal arrangements. Mr. Mousa said he and his business partner paid a former vendor $18,000 in cash every two years to rent a permit.
In an interview, Mr. Chen discussed how growing up in the city informed his reporting, the complicated laws around permits and what could be in store for midday meals. This interview has been edited and condensed.
We want to check in with how business is doing in the New York region, both through the perspective of the consumer and the business owner. It seems that everything has been turned upside down since the pandemic. That’s not necessarily the hook for all of these pieces, but we wanted to explain the complex systems behind what things cost.
I grew up in Queens, and street food was a staple in most student diets and for the working crowd. For as long as I can remember, it was five or six bucks for a heaping plate of halal chicken. I was really shocked to learn about this cap that’s been in place for decades that essentially limits the number of food cart permits; without a permit, carts can be subject to fines and confiscation. The cap has been about 5,100 for decades. In 2021 the City Council passed a law that said the city would release 445 new permits every year for a decade. But the process has been slow going, and only 71 have been issued so far.
Is Halal Plates emblematic of food vendors in the city?
There’s something so New York about chicken and rice, even more than the hot dog. This speaks to a fairly recent wave of immigration of Egyptians in the late 1980s who brought this dish to the mainstream.
For any New Yorker, chicken and rice brings an image to mind of a mound of food drenched in white sauce. It’s immediately evocative for someone who works in the city and leaves their office to buy lunch. You would go to the office five days a week in Midtown or downtown, and there would be a cart on every corner. Now, with people coming into the office a third of the time, or two-fifths of the time, food cart business is dwindling while prices are going up.
Vendors and their advocates told me that the fact that only 71 permits had been completed so far suggests that maybe there isn’t enough education about this process or other barriers for those on waiting lists. Some might have already given up.
The city said it has already released all the required applications for permits, but it’s a big undertaking to correct what has, for a long time, been a frozen process.
How did eating food from street vendors growing up inform your view of the city’s food culture?
Small business has always been a toehold for immigrant populations in New York. When my grandfather on my mother’s side arrived in the United States from Greece, he jumped around from diners and did that sort of work until he was able to save enough money to get a Mister Softee ice cream truck. He was a vendor for another really iconic thing in New York City. I’ve always had an interest in that entrepreneurial immigrant business.
Oftentimes these businesses are in the background for New Yorkers who don’t give much thought to what it takes to keep them afloat. That may not be the case for much longer. We have a shrinking customer base in many parts of the city, rising costs and bureaucratic issues in terms of receiving permits. It’s a good time to take stock of what people go through.
What do consumers lose when food carts struggle?
Enjoy your $20 salad when these guys are gone. That’s another thing: New Yorkers think about the idea of the missing middle. There’s no middle-income housing, and increasingly you can argue there’s no middle-income work lunch anymore. This is a pretty big example of what that looks like.