The TONY coffee cart guy

He keeps our staff well supplied in caffeine and fattening pastries. Hear his story.

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Hi.

Hi. You want something to drink?

No, thanks. I'd like to talk to you about your cart. How did you choose this location?

Well, I work for someone, and this is where he wants it.

It seems like a terrible place for a street vendor [37th Street and 10th Avenue].

It's not so bad. There's a taxi warehouse down there (gestures westward on 37th), and the commercial building here (nods to building where TONY is located). To find the right location isn't easy. I've had my own cart before and tried different locations. It wasn't good.

Why is it so hard?

It takes time. You have to look at the money you make over a whole season, maybe more than one season. It might take all winter and summer until you know if you can make money. You look around for subway stops or commercial buildings or people working, but sometimes it's just a lucky guess.

Can put your cart wherever you want or do you have to negotiate a spot with the city?

The permit I have is citywide, so I can put the cart anywhere on the sidewalk as long as I follow certain rules. There are laws on how many feet I can be from a window, from the curb, from a fire hydrant. If you prepare food, there's a whole other set of rules. You have to have a sink and use soap all the time. Me, I don't prepare. I just sell.

Sounds smart. I tried to talk to the lunch cart guy yesterday, but his language wasn't great. He said it would be better to talk to you.

Coffee carts and lunch carts are very different. You'll find most coffee cart people are better educated because 90 to 95 percent of the customers are steady. It's very social.

And the lunch cart isn't?

I used to work a lunch cart and maybe 20 percent off those customers are steady. Also, a lot of them act very bad. They ask for this and that, and when you add extra charges they get very angry. They think they can treat you however they want. People will say they know a number they can call to report you; they act like they control you.

The coffee cart sounds a lot better.

It still isn't easy. I'm at the garage usually at 2 or 2:30 am, sometimes earlier. My garage is in Brooklyn, near the Queens border on Flushing St. Then I have to come to my corner and prepare for the day. It's a hard job.

I believe it. How's the money?

The profit isn't what it used to be. You used to make 50 or 60 cents on coffee and doughnuts, guaranteed. Now everything has become so expensive. The milk is double what it used to be; cup prices have gone up, and gas for the heater. Still, I can't really increase prices. Customers get very mad.

You charge 75 cents for a medium coffee. People pay $4 or $5 for Starbucks drinks all the time. How can they complain about your prices?

I can only laugh at that. I guess the philosophy is that I have a push-cart, they have a store. But I have expenses, too.

Did you see that movie about the push cart worker [Man Push Cart]?

No. I heard about it. The guy who directed it came to my garage. He was handing out flyers to advertise the movie.

What's something about push-cart workers that most people don't realize?

I'd say 50 percent of them are Muslims. The reason is that it's against the religion to work with pork or with alcohol. That's why most Muslims won't work in restaurants.

Are you Muslim, then?

Yes. I think a person has to have rules. If you have rules, you have a place to grow from.

Where are you from?

I'm from Egypt. I used to work in big hotels there as a manager, also doing accounting. Once I got a green card, I thought I could use my experience and take some courses in English and find a hotel job here, like assistant manager. But I got the same answer all over. If you don't know people on the inside, don't waste your time.

So that's how you ended up with the cart?

Yes. The bottom line is that you have to work. If you don't have a job you like, you need something that gives you time to improve yourself for something else. This job gives me time. I take hospitality management courses. I work on my English. But I'm not ashamed of this business. I'm working for myself. I'm working hard.

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