The Mysterious Life of a Halal Cart Owner

The Mysterious Life of a Halal Cart Owner

There are numerous halal carts scattered throughout New York City’s streets. Five of them are located within walking distance from Baruch College. The immigrants who man these carts are employed by immigrant cart owners of Arab descent, most of whom own at least two carts. Cart owners and workers only interact with one another each morning when cart owners drop off raw food to their cart(s). Since most cart owners own multiple carts, they carry out this process as quickly as possible, usually spending little time speaking to their workers. Thus, it is extremely difficult to find a cart owner to speak to. Likewise, most workers are suspicious of people asking them questions, perhaps because some do not have legal permits for their carts.

A smiling halal cart owner poses for a quick picture after being interviewed

Talkative workers say that they are barely in contact with their respective cart owners. One such worker, who worked an afternoon shift at an unnamed cart in Midtown, responded to questions about the owner of his cart by exclaiming, “What owner? I’ve never seen him before!” It was obvious that cart workers only interact with cart owners when they pick up their vehicles and when they receive food deliveries. This creates an uncomfortable dynamic in which cart owners know little to nothing about those who work for them. While the cart owners have enough time to work other odd jobs, as many of them do, their workers gruel over the hot stoves in their carts. Yet it is the cart owners who retain a majority of the business’s earnings. This has created a tense relationship between cart workers and owners since cart workers are viewed as nothing more than a cheap labor force.


In comparison, Muhammed, the owner of NYC’s Best Halal Cart, plays an unusual role in the day-to-day operations of his cart. For one thing, he owns only one cart, located in Midtown, because of the high expenses associated with getting a permit. He also does not see the need for owning more than one cart, believing that his time is best spent helping his workers during the busiest times of the day. He shares shifts with his workers, cooking food alongside them. A passerby might think that they are long-time friends, rather than employer and employee. This makes their relationship more of a trusting partnership between two equal individuals. Furthermore, Muhammed decided to open up this food cart because he was unable to put his advanced collegiate skills to use when he immigrated to America. Cooking was what he knew best and the food cart business was in high demand. Thus he turned to a profitable venture: the food cart business. He hired fellow immigrants, and eventually distant relatives, to work with him. Similarly to Habibi’s halal food cart on Park Avenue South, which is a family-owned and operated cart, Muhammed’s cart contributed to chain migration of co-ethnic immigrants.

The empty interior of the Long Island City Halal Garage on a week-day morning

Each cart near Baruch College receives its food supply from a community garage in Long Island City, called the “Halal Garage.” Interestingly enough, so did the halal cart near the Eltingville Transit Center in Staten Island. This garage, located at 23-51 51st Avenue, is one of nearly thirty different garages in the Greater New York area. Although it seems to be randomly located and is odd in appearance, it is a licensed mobile food vending storage area, according to a 2016 New York City Health Board report. It has the ability to house approximately eighty carts overnight. This garage also buys meat from a wholesale company called Restaurant Depot. This meat is then distributed amongst the cart owners, who in turn distribute it amongst their carts each day. The Halal Garage also provides mandated cart cleaning services for a lump monthly sum. Multi-functional garages like these are designed to be a one-stop-shop for busy halal cart owners. According to an anonymous worker, these garages do not make a huge amount of money. But, their owners seem to be more interested in serving their co-ethnic immigrants by helping halal cart owners succeed in their endeavors, allowing them to attain their own version of the American dream.

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