A food cart named desire

Ten years ago, an immigrant from Pakistan named Jamshed “Jim” Khalid pushed his food cart to the vacant corner of Prospect and Sachem. The Yalies trecking up and down Science Hill were not the only ones to take notice; Khalid’s choice of location caught the attention of vendors. More food carts began to appear alongside his.

Being the first vendor to stake out Science Hill earned Khalid a nickname among the vendors: “Christopher Columbus.” Khalid wouldn’t say exactly how much he made a day, but his pioneering location proved profitable, and not just for him.

Over time the corner boomed. Fifteen carts can now be found, Monday through Friday — exactly 15 because, last February, the New Haven government (prompted by Yale) limited the number of carts that had accumulated at the intersection so that the crowded sidewalks would not become any more chaotic during the lunchtime rush.

A food cart named desire
A food cart named desire

“A primary issue … was that the sight-lines of both pedestrians and motorists were often blocked when the food vendors were crowded along Sachem Street and up Prospect hill,” Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, University vice president for New Haven and state affairs, said in an e-mail.

In the interest of “pedestrian safety,” Morand then turned to Andrew Rizzo, the executive director of the Building Department for the City of New Haven, who was already doing similar organizational work in the city.

“Yale asked me to find some order,” Rizzo said. He began working out plans for the group at Prospect and Sachem last December, marking the area as New Haven’s second of three restricted vending zones (alongside Long Wharf, previously limited to 14 vendors, and the intersection of Cedar and York, limited to 28 this April).

Rizzo decided all carts needed to move to Prospect Street, south of Sachem, rather than spreading across the intersection. Construction has temporarily bumped the carts to the parking lot of Ingalls Rink, but usually they line both sides of Prospect Street leading up to Sachem.

In outlining this arrangement, however, the question arose of who would get what spot.

Enter Giacomo “Jack” Dinuzzo, owner of Giacomo Foods, Llc. His is the bright red truck usually outside the Sociology building at 140 Prospect St. Typically clad in jean shorts ending just above his knee and a T-shirt stretched across his belly, Dinuzzo operates out of a trailer, though he is more easily found sitting in his folding chair under a nearby tree.

The ninth vendor to arrive to the corner, Dinuzzo is referred to by the rest of the gang as “The Godfather.”

While Khalid may have discovered the location, Dinuzzo takes credit for its development. Dinnuzo’s tendency to speak his mind confidently led him to serve as the liaison between Rizzo and the group of vendors. An unofficial mayor of sorts, Dinuzzo called the group of cart owners together in early January for dinner at Indochine (one vendor’s restaurant) to work out their differences regarding the matters of location and competition. He then relayed the group’s decision back to Rizzo.

The group ultimately decided that each vendor would pick his or her preferred location on the block with respect to who had been at the lucrative intersection longest. If someone ever leaves temporarily or is sick, his or her spot can be taken. But the day the worker returns, old pecking order comes back as well (unless the worker has been gone for more than three months without warning, in which case he or she falls to the end of the line).

Both on Prospect Street and elsewhere, there is an understanding among those in the business about whose spot is whose. The government does not track these trends. Apart from knowledge of who is approved to be in each restricted area, the vendors’ locations are unknown to a city government that, according to the rules, believes, like the hungry students who queue up at the carts, in the rule of “first-come, first-served.”

RULES, RULES, RULES

To obtain a yearlong license (as opposed to single-day permit), vendors must pass a police background check, present a form of identification, provide a tax number and pay a $200 fee. A class on food safety must be completed in addition to an annual Health Department check (after which even New Haven’s environmental health director Paul Kowalski said he felt “comfortable” eating food from the carts). The decision for certification is ultimately made by the Police Department, with Rizzo in the Building Department describing himself solely as “the paper pusher” responsible for logging the approved licenses.

Following approval, the vendor must not only display the license on the cart, but also must supply a trash barrel, keep their space (at least 10 feet in every direction) free of trash, ensure the carts meet size regulations, stay at least 20 feet away from a fire hydrant or emergency call box and 50 feet from another vendor or similar business, obtain a permit before vending in parks, operate within the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and refrain from the sale of silly string or other “items of nuisance.”

Still, the number of food vendors over the past 10 years has been rising. Dinuzzo credited the economy; people used to work carts in order to make enough money to open a restaurant, but now the process has now reversed. His theory is that people who own restaurants, in an effort to maximize profits during lunch, are taking their food to the people.

Which leads to Dinuzzo’s corresponding hypothesis regarding why so many carts are operated by immigrants: many (both legal and not) immediately work in restaurant kitchens following their arrival to America. Employers send these workers out with carts, paying them $8 or $10 an hour. These employees, in turn, learn the tricks of the food-cart trade and then turn around and quit. They either buy the carts from the restaurant or from another company and reenter the food cart business on their own, this time making twice as much.

With the increase in vendors, the food sold has correspondingly changed. Ten years ago, there was no variation beyond hamburger or hot dog. “Now it’s a full cuisine,” Dinuzzo said — everything from Thai to Indian to Argentinean to Mediterranean.

‘ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY’

Mongkhon Saengsiriwathanakul, more easily referred to by his peers as “A”, emigrated from Thailand to America in 2000. For the first few years following his arrival, he would walk up the five floors to his apartment because he did not know English well enough to easily carry on conversation and, as he said, “American people like to talk!”

Stephanie Harris, responsible for filing the vendors licenses with the city’s Building Department, estimated that the majority of the people who come to their office “barely speak English,” she said. It is not uncommon for her to send the applicant home with the forms so he or she can seek assistance from a bilingual friend.

Among the Prospect Street vendors, Dinuzzo is one of the few who is not an immigrant, and he has certainly embraced his American heritage down to his self-proclaimed role unionizing the group. “You’ll find the Asian and Oriental people are shy,” he said. “I’m not. I’m American.”

And so Dinuzzo has taken “A” under his wing, leaning against the side of his truck, helping with translations or just chatting. Describing the Prospect Street vendors as “one big happy family”, Dinuzzo treats “A” like a younger brother. Under this guidance, “A” has become downright friendly.

No longer afraid of speaking English, “A” asks Dinuzzo or a customer for help whenever he stumbles on a word. Enthusiastic is an understatement, as he excitedly shouts “Hi, how are you?” to any passerby. “A” said many come regularly twice a week; he memorized their orders so that they feel they are important to him.

“I feel sad every year on May,” he said. “So many customers say bye-bye.”

“A” pauses from his work only to pray. Holding a Coca-Cola can between his palms, he closes his eyes for a few moments. Then he places the drink (which will be thrown away at the end of the day) as an offering next to the inch-high plastic Buddha on the shelf of his cart.

SUCCESS?

With an increasing number of applications for vendors licenses, competition for sales has risen as well. Some cart owners have been returning to the office within weeks of certification to ask for advice on where to sell their products.

“I just tell them where they can’t go, because there’s so many places you can go,” Harris said.

Most cart owners on Prospect and Sachem said they make enough to live comfortably. About half also have income from related restaurants.

In the spring and summer, many people join the ranks without realizing the amount of work they are getting themselves into. “They have no clue,” Dinuzzo said. “They think they’ll hit a home run every day. You’re lucky to hit a single or double.” Harris, of the Building Department, guessed that up to half of those who register last only a few months before cutting their losses and selling their carts in order to search for new jobs.

Remarkably, then, Khalid’s lemon chicken special always sells like hot cakes. Not only does he possess a very special recipe, he owns four carts, two of which are on Propsect. He works anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day between preparations, service, cleanup and inventory with help from his wife and several employees. “It’s 24 hours. You cannot dream about anything else,” he said.

That is assuming you can sleep. Khalid said he spent many sleepless years, worrying about how he would ever be able to pay his bills, facilitate good education for his daughters, etc. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep,” he said.

Sleep or not, Monday through Friday, Khalid arrives at the Ali Baba restaurant on Foxon Boulevard by 8:30 a.m. He then adopts the role of director over the next three hours preparing food, delivering carts and responding to phone calls from his wife in need of extra groceries.

Pulling out of the parking lot after picking up milk and water a normally chatty Khalid falls silent, saying a quick prayer. Not an especially strict Muslim, Khalid said he nonetheless likes to maintain a balance. “The most important thing is you have to be nice with others,” he said.

By 11:20 everything is set. Khalid walks to join Dinuzzo who is sitting, bandana wrapped around his head as usual, in his folding chair. Columbus and The Godfather together call this their chill time, their one break in an otherwise hectic day.

With Khalid plopped on the concrete bench next to Dinuzzo, the pair is soon joined by Dinuzzo’s wife and then the owner of the nearby cart El Poblano. They discuss whether it is worth working the Monday after the Fourth of July weekend and explain how missing just one day of work due to a holiday will put them a week behind in paying bills. Even a rainy day cuts their profits in half.

Khalid tells the circle how his entire family (save one of his three daughters) will be attending a wedding later this year and laments his inability to join them as closing his cart for three days would add too much financial strain. Not one to grant himself even a sick day, Khalid said his priority has always been to ensure ends will meet.

“Money is everything,” he said, then trying to explain, “It’s not everything, but it’s everything.”

As they fall into chatter about the upcoming week, another vendor ambles toward the group. Wearing a lime green shirt that was hard to miss, he leaned over Dinuzzo, putting their faces within inches and whispers: “I tried to hang myself last night.”

Having immigrated 20 years ago, this vendor has owned his cart for the past 12. He quit a corporate job to focus on his restaurant, a decision he said he regrets to this day.

“You work so hard. You work 24 hours, but it doesn’t cover the bills. You have to pay,” he said. “I’m stuck. I have the responsibility on my shoulder. I have to try.”

While his cart only brings in an additional $200 to $300 a week, he has clung to it as a means for survival. With a son, he said he feels he must sacrifice himself so that his son may have a better future.

The pressure became so great for him that he, like Khalid, could not sleep. He went to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with depression and prescribed medication that he now takes daily. His only hope for happiness? Returning to work for a company, he said.

But as he confides in Dinuzzo, it becomes apparent his peers provide the moral support his psychiatrist couldn’t.

Dinuzzo says to him, “You make yourself crazy. It’s alright. You drink, you take pills, and the problems are still there. You have to learn that you have to wake up and accept that this is it.”

But he replies, “I want to be free. I want to die.”

Dinuzzo, still sitting in his folding chair, remains unfazed, speaking in his usual commanding tone, “Even when you die, you have responsibility to God. You’re free now because you can choose your destiny. Whether you hang yourself, whether you drink.” Khalid offers advice on how to improve the business, and the group discusses the problems associated with how four of the Thai carts at the intersection are lined up next to each other. They brainstorm ways for him to make his business more economical. Then, Jack offers a piece of age-old advice, “You do the best you can do every day. Things will get better. Trust me.”

“You have your family, you have your wife, you have your kids,” Dinuzzo said. “Look at that. Don’t look at your business anymore. You have to focus on something other than your problems.”

And with that comment, the conversation is over. The man returns to his cart, to keep doing the best he can do every day.

The rest of the group drifts back to their own respective carts. They serve a constant flow of customers until 1:30 when the number slows to a trickle. Khalid pulls one last Styrofoam container off the shelf and dishes himself lunch, then walks down the street to go check on his wife at her Kati Roll cart.

The whole intersection has returned to quiet relaxation. Cart owners stir remaining food, keeping it hot, but talk among themselves. Most will stay until 2 or 3, but even once they leave the intersection work remains to be done. Dishes must be washed and food prepared for the following day. For Khalid, all of his chores usually end around 8 each night, if not later. Then it is time for the best part of the day: counting the money.

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