A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor

The work is both demanding and routine. Mr. Ahmed commutes five or six days a week, clocking eight-hour shifts. His ride into Lower Manhattan is just over an hour, so if he can find a seat on the E train, he sleeps, squashed between the bodies of strangers, or watches part of a movie on his phone. Last week it was “Asoka,” based on the life of an Iron Age Indian ruler, played by one of his all-time favorite actors, Shah Rukh Khan.

But today, Mr. Ahmed checks his email first, hoping for news from one of the preschools processing the application of his youngest child, Karen. Nothing yet.

By 7:15 a.m., he has reached his usual spot, which he found three years ago by word of mouth: a wide swath of sidewalk in front of the BNY Mellon building that gets hectic around noon when those in the financial district crowd — a mix of Wall Street bankers and construction workers, students and tourists — are all looking to spend $ 5 or $ 6 on a fast, hot lunch.

Mr. Ahmed, left, and Sayed Shabana positioning the cart. Numerous regulations cover its placement. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Though there are occasional turf wars among vendors, Mr. Ahmed has never had to fight for space. He buys breakfast — a coffee and doughnut — from a nearby vendor who gives him what Mr. Ahmed calls a “neighbor discount.”

“Good morning, neighbor!” is his standard, sunny greeting for the half-dozen other carts on his block.

Like many cart owners, Mr. Ahmed hires someone to deliver the cart to him every morning and return it to a garage each night. (Other owners hitch the carts to their cars and drive them in, then face the ordeal of finding a parking spot.)

But by 7:40, Mr. Ahmed is getting antsy; the driver is late. “Maybe he has a flat tire,” he says. He stays calm, though sometimes he can’t help but imagine the worst. Mr. Ahmed was a New Yorker on 9/11, and this part of the city holds meaning for him. “Many people, they went to work like me, they thought it was an ordinary day,” he says.

Salman Akhtar, right, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is the first customer of the day — at 9:30 a.m. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

It’s cloudy and cold for April, and Mr. Ahmed is still sleepy, but he won’t be tempted by the hot jolt of a second coffee. He knows he can’t leave the cart to go to the bathroom (at the Target across the street, or the Whole Foods a few blocks away) until his partner shows up hours from now. Another coffee, this early in the day, would be way too risky.

The driver pulls up with Mr. Ahmed’s cart at 7:52, and the two men work quickly to wheel it into place. Inside, the cart is cold, clean and packed with boxes of ingredients.

The food comes from a commissary kitchen attached to the garage in Long Island City, Queens; the city requires that food carts be serviced and supplied by a commissary, and there are many of them, of varying sizes, with different owners, all around New York.

At an extra cost, this one has provided everything Mr. Ahmed needs for the day: heads of lettuce, a few dozen tomatoes and potatoes, ready-sliced halal lamb, several bags of boneless chicken thighs, two 12-pound bags of basmati rice, four large plastic containers of potable water for cooking and washing, clamshell containers and napkins.

Chicken is prepped for the anticipated lunchtime rush. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Mr. Ahmed ties on his apron and pushes a few boxes underneath the cart so he can squeeze inside and get to work. Any boxes peeking out beyond the cart’s footprint could result in a fine (penalties can run up to $ 1,000), as could parking his cart closer than six inches to the curb, or 20 feet to the building entrance. Mr. Ahmed knows all the rules by heart.

He connects the 40-pound propane tank and turns on the flattop grill and burners. He cuts lettuce and tomatoes, browns lamb and vast amounts of chicken. He takes care, in the cramped kitchen space, to keep his vegetarian cooking separate. For a long time, Mr. Ahmed chops onions in silence.

“If I play music or anything, I get distracted,” he says. “I forget the salt.”

Although Mr. Ahmed had little cooking experience when he started, his wife, Sheren Akter, says his food is better than that at most other carts — less greasy, more flavorful, well seasoned.

His menu consists of about 20 dishes, most of them cooked to order, but regulars know to ask for the chicken biryani, flecked with fried onion and cilantro, garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, all for $ 6, with a drink. He’d like to raise the price, but worries that he would lose customers.

Mr. Ahmed, his partner and an assistant work to keep up with the lunch crowd. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

To make the biryani, Mr. Ahmed fries the onion until it’s translucent. He drops in whole cinnamon, star anise, green cardamom pods and bay leaves. Before the chicken goes in, he adds garlic paste and a spoonful of ghee. He cooks the rice in the same simmering pot, adding water and a prepared spice mixture that includes dried papaya and plums. All the passers-by, those with travel mugs and employee ID badges, or those walking their dogs or pushing their strollers, inhale the familiar perfume of Mr. Ahmed’s chicken biryani.

Salman Akhtar, a pre-med student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, is Mr. Ahmed’s first customer of the day, at 9:30. The men chat in Bangla, and when Mr. Ahmed speaks in Bangla, he is louder and faster, quicker to tell a joke.

Mr. Ahmed came to New York alone, at age 23. He had studied accounting and commerce at Dhaka College, but in Queens, it took him a few months to find a job. By then, he owed his roommates in Sunnyside almost $ 3,000.

He worked off the debt, busing tables and driving cars. But later, after Mr. Ahmed married and had children, he dreamed of a small business that he could expand. NYT > Food