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Confessions of a New York street-food vendor

Street food is suddenly hip, but in New York it's as old as salt on pretzels.
Image: Food cart
Although cart competition is fierce in New York City's Times Square, Meru Sikder recently added a second, adjacent cart to feed the hundreds who line up for his 2009 Vendy Award-winning Indian food. Shana Liebman / via Budget Travel

Street food is suddenly hip, but in New York it's as old as salt on pretzels. So we asked a Big Apple vendor for dirt on — well, how dirty are those carts, anyway? He wanted to be anonymous. We agreed, so long as he gave us extra kraut.

Clean or dirty?
I've worked in a lot of restaurants — and trust me, these carts are a heck of a lot cleaner. The customers can see and smell our whole operation. If our chicken and veggies don't smell fresh, we can't hide that and the people walking past aren't going to stop and buy. Plus, our carts are so tiny, they're simple to keep clean. We just suds them up and hose them down every night. In restaurants, customers usually can't see how clean the kitchens are, and most of the time, they probably wouldn't want to.

Bathroom breaks
I used to have a fruit cart, and I was the only one who worked there, so bathroom breaks weren't really an option. I remember trying so hard to hold it all day long—not fun. Sometimes, if I couldn't wait any longer, I'd take the cash from the cart, run as fast as I could to the nearest restroom, and then run as fast as I could right back, hoping and praying no one would steal anything. Surprisingly, only once did some crazy kids take off with my whole cart.

I've been doing this a long time, so by now I have a pretty good idea how many hot dogs I'm going to sell each day (about 80) and how many platters of chicken and rice (40). It's rare that there's any food left over by closing. If there is, we pitch it out. Yeah, I know I could serve it the next day — and that might save me $10 — but my customers would taste the difference. And then they wouldn't come back, and maybe they'd tell their friends or the tourists on the corner not to come to me either. And then I'd be out way more than the $10 I saved. It's not worth it. I learned that the hard way.

Occasionally, I get a few homeless people who come and ask for a bit of food. I can't spare the money to feed everyone, but if they're polite, I always give them a little something. What's a single hot dog to me? I sell them for 99¢ each. But to them ...

How to treat a celebrity
I used to get a lot of big names at my baked-potato cart. Calvin Klein, Ice-T, Tommy Hilfiger — they all came. Richard Simmons even stopped by once. He saw the big line out front at lunchtime, so he came around to the back of my cart and asked if he could buy from me there. I told him the line was in the front. He asked, "Don't you know who I am?" I said, "Of course, the Sweatin' to the Oldies exercise guy! But you still gotta wait in line." He had his chauffeur do it. He ordered two baked potatoes with a little butter and scallions.

Customer service
People are distracted at lunchtime, yapping on their cell phones, punching their BlackBerries. I can't tell you how many times they'll ask for one thing — white sauce and hot sauce on their chicken and rice, for instance — and then say that's not what they ordered when I give it to them. But it's not my job to be right. It's my job to make them happy — and to make them come back. I need a steady line. Nobody trusts a cart without customers lined up.

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