Street Food

Snacking through the Big Apple: Food carts in NYC

We explore the cultural diversity exemplified throughout the vibrant street food scene in New York City.

Known as the Big Apple, New York City is home to about nine million people and hosts an additional 40 million visitors every year, which makes for a lot of stomachs to feed.

Quick snacks – above all, the hot dog – are as synonymous with New York as yellow cabs and skyscrapers, reflecting the city’s eclectic ethnic mix.

Yet few people realise that many of the city’s thousands of street vendors – including Brooklyn’s famed Falafel King – face a daily struggle that belies the city’s wealthy, glamorous image.

As the first signs of Manhattan’s morning hustle and bustle surface, the city’s street vendors have already been at work for many hours. Storage garages are busy with the sound of these business owners cleaning and gleaming, stocking and getting things in order for their long day ahead.

Although there are many vendors native to NYC, there is a significant number of immigrant owners – many of whom have run their businesses for decades.

Their food carts symbolise a lot more than a quick and convenient snack for the hundreds of thousands that pound the pavements of the city. They are a chance to live life on their own terms, often after escaping political turmoil or significant economic instability in their homelands. 

But the challenge is far from ideal. Obstacles to a successful business range from finding the perfect selling spot – in spite of an unspoken brotherhood between the vendors that can and has led to rivalries – and adhering to legislation surrounding health and safety, to liquidity and endless working hours. 

On the other side of the river, street vendors in Brooklyn and Queens face an even tougher uphill battle. Catering to a rougher demographic, and often without the means – both financial and otherwise – food cart owners, many of whom are new to the US, tend to find themselves operating illegally and, at times, even dangerously. 

Follow this episode of Street Food to get a glimpse into the good, the bad and the delicious of New York’s vendors.

Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2008.