As Thai native Mong Khol shivered behind the smoke of his food cart on Science Hill, flipping slices of meat and serving his equally cold customers, he knew, he said, that the cold, rainy weather was driving down business. But he thought he could at least take solace in one fact: With the increased patronage from the approaching spring warmth, his cart — and the restaurant in Hamden with which it is affiliated — would soon experience a boost in business.
Of the eight food carts regularly stationed on the corner of Prospect and Sachem streets, nearly all are at least nominally affiliated with local restaurants. And while the cart operators said seasonal variations and tough weather can be a challenge for business, they almost unanimously hope and expect that the carts play a key role in drawing customers to their parent restaurants — even if cart customers said they rarely eat at those restaurants because of tasty cart fare.
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Since his cart customers like his goods, Khol said he expects they are also drawn to his restaurant, although he said he has no way of tracking whether there is a connection in the two’s popularity. All of the other cart owners interviewed for this story said they expect they experience the same benefits, although they did not know for sure.
Roger Kaiuch, the owner of the Thai Taste restaurant on Chapel Street — which is not affiliated with Khol’s cart of the same name — said he thinks the causality actually works the other way: The popularity of the restaurants drives customers toward the carts.
“It’s the restaurant helping the cart, not the cart helping the restaurant,” he said.
But because Khol was once a chef at Thai Taste and eventually plans to change the cart’s name to reflect the name of his Hamden restaurant, Kaiuch said he does not mind the overlapping nomenclature.
“He takes care of the cart; he takes care of the food,” Kaiuch said. “He is doing good for the customer so he still can use my name.”
But he said another restaurant once opened a food cart called “Taste of Thai,” and he objected to this overlap. That cart, he said, was unhygienic and gave his restaurant a bad name. Customers would call his restaurant to complain about the cart, he said, but he was unable to do anything about it because the names are not identical.
That cart, which is owned by Indochine, has since had its name changed by the owners to match the restaurant’s.
As the owner of Indochine on Chapel Street, Chat Chai works his restaurant’s food cart, on weekdays, while his wife runs the restaurant. But unlike the other restaurant/cart owners, Chai said he does not think his cart has been helping his restaurant business, and both establishments have been losing customers — and money — over the past few years.
The losses are due to other restaurants’ accepting Flex points, which Indochine does not, he said. But only two restaurants, Yorkside Pizza & Restaurant and Wall Street Pizza and Restaurant, work with the Flex program. He said the cart is intended to supplement the restaurant as his source of income, but the cart makes only $150 to $200 a day.
“There used to be people standing in line to get into Indochine, but now it’s almost empty,” Chai said. “Year by year, it’s tough. If it keeps happening like this, maybe I’m going to do something else.”
Chai’s food cart experience, though, seems atypical.
Other cart owners said they view their food carts not just as direct sources of profit but as a way to attract customers to the restaurants themselves.
Methanon Singhanaratha, who owns Thai House Restaurant in nearby Orange, and runs a cart with the same name, said he hopes and expects people will eat at his cart and like it so much they visit his restaurant as well. The cart itself makes significantly less money than the restaurant, he said, because he must sell at low prices but still purchase expensive imported ingredients.
Most customers said they are satisfied with the prices and quality of the food-cart fare and said they choose them primarily because of their location, specifically their proximity to Science Hill, where there are few University dining options. They said they generally do not seek out the affiliated restaurants because of the food carts.
But not all food-cart operators are like Chai and Khol: Several do not own the cart they work at or the restaurant with the same name.
The operator of the La Hacienda Mexican cart, for example, said he rents his cart from the owners of the restaurant with the same name and does not serve the same food. In that difference particularly, he stands alone, as most of the other operators said they used the same recipes as their parent restaurants.
Shaci Abdullah, who runs the Mughlai Foods cart, also does not own the cart at which she works. Instead, it is owned by her brother, who also owns a takeout restaurant of the same name and provides the menu for the cart. Unlike the cart owners, Abdullah said her brother opened the cart not just for practical reasons but primarily because it has been his dream to own both a restaurant and a cart.
And although other food-cart operators complain about the rain and the cold and the lack of customers, Abdullah had a very different quibble with the food cart business.
“Parking is hard to find!” she said, laughing.