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The American Dream is alive and well in the birthplace of our nation, and it smells delicious.
It wafts from virtually every street corner in Center City Philadelphia, emanating from metal cubes adorned with unlicensed Philadelphia Eagles logos, flashing LED boards and ice-cream-truck-style picture menus advertising chicken, lamb, falafel and even fish.
These are the halal carts, each a near carbon copy of the next.
Since 2008, their numbers have grown from just a handful to at least 30 in the downtown square bound by Broad, Walnut, Arch and the Schuylkill River. There are even more on the other side of the Avenue of the Arts, all offering a quick, cheap lunch to the 9-to-5 crowd. The meal almost always costs around $5, and is almost always the same: A styrofoam container overstuffed with rice and topped with the protein of your choice, which is in turn topped with hot sauce and/or white sauce and garnished with a few shreds of lettuce and a slice or two of tomato.
While the hipster food truck trend seems like it might have peaked, the subcategory of halal carts show no sign of letting up. Although neither L&I nor the Philadelphia Health Department differentiate between carts and trucks in their mobile vendor permitting — so there’s no hard data to reference — the proliferation is observationally apparent. If there’s an empty corner downtown these days, it’s likely that before too long a halal cart will show up there, replacing the scent of sewer vents with that of fragrant spices and cooked meats.
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What is “halal,” anyway? And how did the city go from a handful of these carts to a Starbucks-level ubiquity in just a few years?
The answer to the first question is relatively simple. Halal isn’t a type of cuisine. Its literal English translation is “permissible,” or “lawful,” and the term covers all matters of daily life under Islamic Shari’ah law. As it pertains to food and drink, it refers to restrictions on what kinds of food are allowed and how it is prepared. Think of it kind of like the Muslim version of Kosher.
Regarding what’s behind the explosion of Philly halal carts, there’s one way to find out: Ask the people who run them. This turns out to not be easy, as many don’t speak English or are simply unwilling to talk to journalists. However, a few welcome the dialogue, and are happy to provide first-hand accounts of how their business came to be, comment on the state of their little corner of the economy, and discuss what future lies ahead.
Ali Khan is tall with an athletic build and a disarming smile. He’s a lot older than many other cart proprietors, and has a bit more polish. I found him on recommendation from my go-to halal guy on 18th and JFK, who claimed his own English was limited to taking orders (and who has since been replaced by a taco cart). Instead, he sent me a block up to 19th and JFK, where I met Ali.
21st Century American Dream
The only child of an officer in the Pakistani Air Force, Khan followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Pakistani Navy. While there, he was an operations technician as well as an eight-time national champion in canoeing, but the growing conflict in Northwest Pakistan, coupled with a marriage, compelled him to seek more peaceful environs for his family. In 2007, he obtained permission to retire from military service, then relocated to New York City and began his job hunt.
His first stop? Dunkin’ Donuts, but it didn’t last long. “I worked there for a week and didn’t get paid,” he says. “Another week goes by, and no paycheck. And I’ve got a family to look after. When I finally do get paid, it’s nothing, so I quit.”
Despite his education and military background, his options were limited. “My in-laws drove cabs, and I had a friend who owned a gas station. I wasn’t interested in sitting all day and driving other people around, so I took the gas station job.”
The gas station was where Khan got his first taste of the food business. The attached convenience store had a deli section, and he found the idea of making sandwiches much more interesting than just being behind the cash register, so that’s where he spent most of his workday. He was good at it, and the owner took notice. He gave Khan more responsibility and more hours, and soon, “I was working all the time, seven days a week.” But the pay wasn’t great. “It wasn’t worth the money I was making.”
Frustrated and eager to find something else, when the opportunity to buy a halal cart popped up unexpectedly via a family friend looking to get out of the biz, he jumped in. He and a colleague borrowed money and searched for a place to vend. The first spot they found was in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, but eventually he scored a place in Manhattan, on 40th and Madison. There, business was good until the Midtown halal cart market became oversaturated.
“It got way too crowded, and the commute from Queens was terrible with traffic,” Khan explains. In a recent investigation into what Crain’s New York termed “the underground economy propping up New York City’s food carts,” long commutes were cited as a common gripe. Other hurdles included illegal monopolies and price-jacking on commissary supplies as well as cartel-style restrictions on vending locations.
“I knew others who had moved to smaller cities and who were much happier, so I started looking around, and ultimately relocated my operation to Philly.”
The Philly difference
It was 2012 when Khan , his wife, their four kids and his parents moved to Northeast Philly. Khan started vending in Center City, enjoying a much better commute and a shorter workday than he’d had 90 miles north. In general, he’s pretty happy.
“It’s all about freedom,” he says, flashing that smile. “I am my own boss. If I want to open, I do. If I need to take a day off, I don’t need to worry about getting fired. It makes me happy that I can work hard and have something to show for it.”
He waves to a handful of passers-by. “I have so many friends, and so many regulars. I feel like I’m part of a community here.”
Based on how similar all the Philadelphia carts look, one might expect that some sort of umbrella organization owns all of them, or that there’s some situation reminiscent of the illicit New York City syndicate. Khan assures me that’s not the case. While most of the carts are built by the same company, Khan says, each are individually owned.
One of them is the property of Kashif Ahmad. Like Khan, he’s from Northwest Pakistan — the demographic toward which Philadelphia cart owners seems to skew heavily — but his path to cartdom follows a different trajectory.
Ahmad has lived in the United States since he was 3 years old, when he moved to Philadelphia with his parents. His older brother launched a halal cart on 16th Street midway between Market and JFK back in 2008, making it one of the few in Center City at the time. Once high school was over, Ahmad jumped into the family business, and has been managing it ever since.
“I like being my own boss,” he says. “It’s easy. I don’t need to start my workday until 8 a.m. and I’m done by 3 or 4 p.m.”
That “easy workday,” which many (but not all) halal vendors enjoy, could be part of the reason for the Philly cart spurt. Then there’s the low barrier to entry. Provided you pay for the taxes and licenses, there’s no cost for real estate. Street corner locations are doled out via a periodic lottery run by L&I, but once you get your spot, it’s yours as long as you continue to pay the city your Business Privilege Tax and file your paperwork. The carts themselves, even the ones with the LED boards, don’t cost more than $10,000, and require less maintenance than a food truck.
Philly’s Halal explosion
Is the explosion of halal carts in Philly just a fad? That’s what Khan alleges, that they’re popping up everywhere are because many in the Pakistani community have noticed others making a buck, and want to cash in.
Ahmad is a gentleman about it. “I’m certainly not happy [to have more competition],” he says, “but I want everyone to succeed. And I know my food is good and I have my regulars. Has business slowed? Sure, but I’m still doing well.”
“I wish they weren’t right down the block from me,” he adds, “but what can you do?”
It’s tough to compete on price, since the cost of a halal food cart meal hasn’t budged from five or six dollars for a heaping platter of food at the same time that food costs have skyrocketed. People just aren’t willing to pay more, Ahmad says, despite the fact that the chicken he buys is twice as expensive as it was just two years ago.
Variety is one way to stand out from the crowd, but even that is easily aped. One day when Khan was preparing fish at home, his mother suggested he add it to his cart menu, alongside the ubiquitous chicken and lamb. He started offering fried tilapia, spiced the same way as his chicken, and it was a big seller. Others noticed.
“I was the first to do fish in the cart,” Khan says. “Now everybody does fish.”
Some carts have started doing other regional specialties, like Hyderabadi-style mutton or chicken biryani, in which the marinated meat is cooked along with the rice. Instead of being advertised by a photograph on the side of the cart, these “off-menu” items are often written in Sharpie on the back of a paper plate tacked to the plexiglass. Proprietors are able to charge a few bucks more for them, plus they’re a point of differentiation that can lead to longer lines.
Aside from making sure their businesses continue to be self-sufficient, and hoping the market here doesn’t oversaturate like it did in New York, what’s the endgame? After all, there’s the example of The Halal Guys, who have gone from a single NYC cart to a global franchise — one is due to open in Philadelphia Chinatown later this year, and another is coming to King of Prussia.
Khan says he’s content with just one cart. “I want to focus on making great food,” he says. “If I expand, there are so many other distractions.” Instead, he seems happy to act as a mentor for others. “I have one employee, and I tell him, ‘If you want to do your own thing, I’m more than happy to help.’”
As for Ahmad, when he’s not in the cart, he’s studying to become a mechanic. “I do halal because it’s all I know, but I’ve been doing it so long that I’d like to try something different. And I love cars. Having my own garage would be amazing.”
The good news, as far as Center City lunchers are concerned, is that there are plenty of people ready and willing to follow in his footsteps.