It takes Franco Gonzalez about two minutes to make a burrito. That gives his customers just enough time to dance to half of a Latin song blaring from the radio that sits on top of his burrito stand.
Gonzalez works at Roomba’s food cart, one of three carts near York and Elm. Along with Roomba’s Mexican food there is the old standby, Thai Taste, and the newest entry into the cart market, Ethiopian Lalibela.
Besides their obviously different culinary offerings, each cart has its own distinct atmosphere — based primarily on the personality of the vendor. And each vendor has his own sphere of influence over the sidewalk immediately surrounding his cart.
Although competition between the carts is friendly, it definitely does exist. Thai Taste, the most established cart, has about fifty customers a day. Because of their newcomer status, the numbers for Roomba and Lalibela vary more.
They compete for customers, of course, but there are personal tensions, too. Most of the trouble seems to come from the Thai Taste cart.
Gonzalez said that he and Kamporn Suwannalee, who runs the Thai Taste cart, sometimes trade food, and that Suwannalee liked his burritos. Suwannalee confirmed he knows the other vendors and said they do trade food. But when asked if he liked the others’ dishes he said that he can eat it — but he would not say that he likes it. Then he laughed.
There are also territorial issues. On a typical day, Thai Taste occupies the prime real estate on the corner of York and Elm. City law states that vendors must be 50 feet apart, so Roomba’s cart sits farther down York. Lalibela, the newest cart, sits on an isolated spot near Toads.
When asked how Thai Taste secures its spot every day, Suwannalee became visibly upset.
“The next window, whether burritos or Chinese food, they have to respect me because I’ve been here,” he said.
Suwannalee has tried to cultivate a friendly atmosphere for his cart. Unlike the Roomba vendor, or the florist across the street, there is no stereo. He talks fast, in somewhat broken English — he is, really, his own boom box.
Once he hooks a potential buyer he introduces himself, but not as Kamporn Suwannalee. He calls himself “At.” He readily explains any dish, but expresses great irritation at students who ask several questions and then don’t buy anything.
For him, it is all about the sale. He appears ready to do almost anything to get more customers. Chiming in from behind his cart, he urged a customer to praise the restaurant.
“Thai Taste is the best restaurant,” Jackie Shaprow ’06 said in response. “I’m in love with the man who works behind the cart. I get my romance and my food.”
Shaprow was rewarded for her endorsement with a large helping of free pad Thai.
Lalibela, the newest cart on the block, could use someone like Suwannalee to attract business. While decorated with flashing Christmas lights, the Lalibela cart sits furthest away from the intersection, and appears to get the least business.
Although the Lalibela stand seemed to be almost entirely devoid of customers, it has at least one enthusiast. Matt Katz, who works at York Copy, said he eats at the food stands almost every night.
“I usually go to the Thai guy, but now that the Ethiopian guy is there — it’s a wonderful thing,” Katz said.
The man running the Lalibela cart spoke almost no English. This reporter tried to talk to him for several minutes, but only received blank stares and the occasional nod.
The language barrier could prove problematic, especially given that most students are probably unfamiliar with the restaurant and with Ethiopian food in general. He sat silently, waiting for customers to approach the stand.
But at the Roomba cart, Gonzalez was friendly and eager enough for two. Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Gonzalez only came to the United States four months ago. Though still working on his English, he likes to teach his customers Spanish while they wait.
Many of his frequent customers now greet him and order in the Spanish he has taught them. Other customers help him with his English, which he also studies while waiting for business.
Like Suwannalee, Gonzalez is also talkative, but in a more conversational way. Instead of attacking customers with a scripted line of questioning, Gonzalez appears disarmingly naive.
“There is no customer, they are my friends. Each new customer is like a friend for me,” Gonzalez said.
He said that he goes running and to the movies with people he met working at the stand — and has also been to customers’ parties. He also said that he wants his stand to function as a break for his busy customers.
“Franco is like a home away from home,” regular customer David Stovall MUS ’03 said.
Quickly identifiable by the Latin music playing and its red-and-yellow striped umbrella, the cart is only about two months old but it already has a loyal following.
Helen Veit GRD ’08, who just spent a year in Mexico, raved about the burritos.
“[It’s] one of the best burritos I’ve ever had,” Veit said.
The stand has a modest offering of chicken, beef, or vegetarian burritos, but the list of optional fillings seems endless. It even has a little sink attached to the side, complete with soap and a paper towel dispenser.
“It has very good burritos, good service, a friendly smile, and it’s clean, too,” Rhiannon Price ARC ’03 said.
Gonzalez said that he wants his cart to be for more than just food.
“I try to be very friendly with [the customers] because they’re all students. They’re all studying, exhausted. Here they can forget their problems and their homeworks,” he said.
Catharine Livingston contributed to this article.