Wearing a dark blue hoodie and hat, Mohammed Awed stood behind the steam and smoke rising from the oil-slicked grill, above fragrant spiced chicken, lamb on a spit, the hiss and wafting smell of onions hitting hot metal.
Food carts seldom pop up on this oft-gloomy strip of Riverdale Avenue around West 259th Street, an area that includes several kosher eateries, a deli and a steak house. So to passersby, the newly arrived halal cart was something of a curiosity.
Normally Awed — whose mobile food vendor license identifies him as Mohamed Beheiry — works in Times Square for another food cart owner, he said, pulling in around $1,000 a day. But that money isn’t his to keep — he’s paid a daily wage of $140.
But on April 4 — the cart’s Riverdale Avenue debut in front of the Skyview Shopping Center parking lot — sales were as bleak as the weather. Awed said he’d scraped together barely $100 by mid-afternoon.
Nevertheless, residents like David Grippo, a physical education teacher at the John F. Kennedy Educational Campus in Kingsbridge — who lives just down the block — enthusiastically welcomed halal food coming to an area some say is sorely lacking in cheap-but-good grub options. He ordered a couple of gyros — one with chicken, one with lamb — for himself and his girlfriend.
“I’m from Brooklyn, so I’m used to this,” said Grippo, who used to teach at Erasmus Hall Educational Campus. “I used to get this all the time. It’s a great bargain. You can’t beat it.”
Awed won’t man the cart for long, however. He was filling in for a friend who was sick last Wednesday. The food itself, however, is here to stay, at least according to Islam Moseama, the man who operates the cart.
The challenges of running a food cart in the city are daunting, Moseama said. Permits from the health department cost $200, and expire every two years. The cart’s cook also must be a licensed vendor.
A slew of regulations like where the cart can be parked, keeping all the food and cooking space sanitary and at proper temperatures, plus the substantial cost of the food itself — at least $150 or $200 a day when it’s slow, Moseama said, but up to $1,000 or more when business picks up — for chicken, lamb, tilapia, shrimp, vegetables, falafel, rice and oil.
Plus, bad weather also can put a damper on business.
“So in total, you’re looking at a big investment,” Moseama said. “Your overhead is probably about $400 or $500 a day, so if you make less, you’re losing money. That’s why there’s a lot of turnaround in this business — because making money in the street is not as easy as people think.”
But there’s also the question of why Moseama chose this particular part of North Riverdale. A friend who lives in the neighborhood told Moseama there could be a demand for food carts there, “because there’s a hospital, there’s a college nearby,” Moseama said. “Carts usually do well near colleges and hospitals.”
Before coming to the Bronx, Moseama said, his cart did a stint in Queens, and near Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“It did well in the beginning, but there’s a lot of competition,” Moseama said. “You go there now, there’s probably 10 or 15 carts in one block. Nobody’s making money there now.”
As for a turf war with other North Riverdale eateries? Employees at Skyview Cafe and Delicatessen — just steps away at 5691 Riverdale Ave. — aren’t losing sleep over it.
“I don’t think he’s going to get much business,” said Numan Ilyas, one of the café’s employees. “We had that, chicken over rice,” halal, in the past but very few people ordered it, maybe just one person a day. “No demand for chicken over rice.”
Plus, Skyview’s already carved out its niche, offering paninis, sandwiches, salads and beer to loyal customers, Ilyas said, giving it a leg up over a newcomer.
“This area gets slow after 4 p.m.,” he added. “It’s just busy from 11 until 2 or 3,” making it tough to survive without an established clientele.
Ruth Tzanetatos, owner of Noni’s Coffee Shop up the street, was less oblivious, however.
“We need to get that food truck out of here. It’s bad for our business,” Tzanetatos said, adding Noni’s sales were down about 50 percent since late last year, when the place lost its short-order cook injured in a car accident.
“It’s a small neighborhood,” Tzanetatos said. “Tell (the vendor to) go to Van Cortlandt to sell his (expletive) hot dogs.”
Halal or kosher, Tzanetatos said, competition is competition.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s still food,” Tzanetatos said. “We go with the flow but we have enough Jewish people in the neighborhood to make everything kosher.”
Shahid Shamraz, owner of Skyview Deli, took a more philosophical stance on the food cart.
“They’re different than us. Let it be,” he said. “The only bad thing is they’re not paying rent.”
Not all neighbors are letting the new food cart off the hook. In fact, police responded to a call around lunchtime April 5, said New York Police Department Sgt. Jessica McRorie. The claim was the cart was parked in a restricted area. But when cops arrived, they found Moseama’s cart wasn’t breaking any rules.
In fact, Awed is a licensed vendor and allowed to be there, police said, and the cart also had the proper permit-decal clearly displayed on the front, in accordance with city health department regulations. Nor was the cart blocking pedestrian traffic.
Awed wasn’t fazed by the visit from the cops.
“This is good for me,” Awed said. “When anybody make a complaint, I call police, police come. When anybody make a problem, police come. I respect police — security for me.”
Moseama hopes his cart will become a fixture in Riverdale, even though it wasn’t around last Friday or this past Monday or Tuesday.
“Hopefully, if I make it,” Moseama said. “If I don’t make it, I’m going to have to find another block in the same neighborhood.”