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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

Late to the Game, Football Stadiums Aim for Better Food

As another Super Bowl nears, the Vikings, with a few other teams in the National Football League, are leading a charge to upgrade food in the tradition-bound world of football stadium concessions, one of last big captive markets to address the broadening culinary sensibilities of fans.

That bad cup of hot chocolate inspired a frozen version made with local cream and dark chocolate, which Mr. Zimmern sells for $ 8 at one of the two concessions he operates at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Along with his cumin-marinated rotisserie lamb sandwich and two other sandwiches he created with his stadium food partner, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, it made a list of the best food at the new stadium compiled by Rick Nelson, the restaurant critic for The Star Tribune.

“The Vikings have done a nice job of making people want to go inside and eat,” Mr. Nelson said, even though “they’re hiding the fact that they are still peddling a lot of schlock.”

Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen Rotisserie at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Credit Madeleine Hill

Food has been steadily improving in places like airports, movie theaters and concert arenas, where people gather for reasons other than to eat. In professional sports, baseball has led the way, driven in part by 22 major-league stadiums that have been built since 1990.

Although staples like hot dogs, pizza and popcorn still make up about two-thirds of food sales in sports stadiums, baseball menus have matured to include gochujang-glazed eggplant buns, fresh Dungeness crab sandwiches, ceviche, espresso and craft beer.

Football has lagged behind baseball largely because the sports are different, people in the concession business say. Baseball is played at a slower pace, with built-in breaks that allow fans to wander around a stadium sampling food. The crowds are smaller, and stadiums are open for about 80 games a season, which makes it easier to polish and sustain creative concessions.

Football is a different beast. Crowds can top 80,000 fans, most of whom want to be in their seats for every play and visit concession stands only before the game and at halftime. With only eight regular home games a season, it’s hard to create a system that produces consistently great food.

“The doors open and 65,000 people come in, and you don’t open your doors for again for a week,” Mr. Zimmern said.

Then there is tailgating, although it’s hard to say whether bad stadium food led to tailgating or tailgating led to less emphasis on food inside the stadium.

NRG Stadium in Houston, where this year’s Super Bowl will be played on Sunday, has one of the strongest tailgating games in the league, said Robb Walsh, the Texas food journalist who researched it for his 2010 book, “The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook.”

“We’re talking about stellar barbecuing with these giant land yachts that unfurl giant TV screens,” Mr. Walsh said. “It is more fun than going inside to eat.”

Mr. Zimmern’s lamb cumin sandwich and frozen hot chocolate at his Canteen Rotisserie at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit Madeleine Hill

N.F.L. franchises are starting to respond to complaints about both the cost and the quality of stadium food, team representatives said.

“When we ask fans what’s the No. 1 pain point, it’s food,” said Rich McKay, the president and chief executive of the Atlanta Falcons, who will play the New England Patriots this weekend. So next season, when the Falcons open their $ 1.5 billion stadium downtown, they plan to sell the least expensive food in the N.F.L.

Lowering prices was a mandate from Arthur Blank, a founder of Home Depot, who owns the team. He wanted a family of four to be able to eat at the stadium for about $ 28.

That means hot dogs, soda or a bottle of water will each cost $ 2. A 12-ounce beer will be $ 5. The rest of the core menu of what the team calls fan favorites will be priced significantly lower than at other stadiums, where the average price of a hot dog is $ 5.19 and a beer $ 7.38, according to the market research agency Team Marketing Report.

In the parking lot of NRG Stadium in Houston in 2014, tailgaters ate before their Texans took the field. Credit Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

To make the economics work, the Falcons struck a deal with Levy Restaurants, one of several national companies that provide food at N.F.L. stadiums. The agreement gives the team more control over setting prices but could cost it in profits. (Although concession sales are a small slice of the income for N.F.L. teams, profit margins can reach 77 percent.)

The food is likely to taste better than it did at the Georgia Dome, the old stadium, which will be torn down this year. The menu is expanding to include fresh handmade pretzels and the Mitchell dog, which rests in a sweet bun that tastes like a glazed doughnut. It is topped with bacon jam and Gruyère cheese.

Vendors from Atlanta’s beloved 89-year-old drive-in the Varsity will roam the stands yelling, “What’ll ya have?” just as they do at the restaurant. Booths will offer favorites from other local restaurants, including Antico Pizza, Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand, Farm Burger and Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. Managers for the Falcons say they will prohibit the restaurants from charging more for food at the stadium than they do at their restaurants.

The Falcons are also installing a raised-bed garden for cooks and bartenders working at the stadium. It’s the league’s second. A 4,000-square-foot rooftop farm was planted at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., which opened in 2014 as the home for the San Francisco 49ers.

The Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie with his Closed on Sunday chicken sandwich, which he will serve at his Game Changer restaurant at the new Falcons stadium. Credit Bryan Meltz for The New York Times

Kevin Gillespie, a star of the Atlanta restaurant scene who rose to fame as a “Top Chef” contestant, couldn’t wait to join the food revolution at the stadium. “My family has had tickets to the Falcons my entire life, and I have always just accepted that the food at a football game is terrible,” Mr. Gillespie said.

But now younger fans who grew up eating better food are pressuring teams to change.“They’re saying, ‘Why can’t we have football alongside good food and drink?’” he said.

His stadium restaurant, called Game Changer, will sell a homage to the In-N-Out Burger and his popular Closed on Sunday fried chicken sandwich, which he makes at Revival, his restaurant in Decatur, Ga. (He named it that because the owners of Chick-fil-A, whose chicken sandwich inspired his, never open their restaurants on Sundays.)

Mr. Gillespie plans to serve a rotating “devour the competition” dish inspired by the opponent. If he were to create one for this year’s Super Bowl, he said, it would be a New England lobster roll.

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The rooftop farm at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., which serves the restaurants inside. Credit Levi’s Stadium

Unlike restaurant fare, stadium food depends as much on logistics as on culinary acumen. Even little details like the placement of the napkin holders or the soda machine can make a big difference in waiting times for fans eager to get back to their seats.

To understand how to better design the more than 670 concession stands at the new Falcons stadium, Mr. McKay worked the soda line at a game this season. “Halftime was like, ‘Whoa, put a helmet on,’” he said. “I was the bottleneck.”

Managers realized that they could save 17 seconds per transaction if they moved soda machines from behind the counter and let customers serve themselves. They also decided to pull more beer from taps; it’s faster than opening a bottle and pouring into a cup. And everything is priced in dollar increments so servers don’t have to make change.

Those adjustments make a huge difference at games, where the crews working the stands are often volunteers from nonprofit groups that keep a small percentage of the profits.

Still, N.F.L. teams have never made a lot of money from concession stands, and neither do the chefs working to make the food better. “It’s not a moneymaker,” said Mr. Zimmern, the Minneapolis chef. “It’s a business card.”

But it’s a lot of fun, and a challenge. That is why he will meet several N.F.L. executives and food service executives at the Super Bowl in a quest to get his food into every stadium in the country.

“It’s like a crossword puzzle,” he said. “I love it.”

Source:NYT > Food