Aamir Khan, who runs a cart at 33rd and Market streets, is glad students are back

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Halal carts returned to the streets of Philadelphia in full force this fall, but as winter approaches, many owners and workers are still struggling.

Vendors who run the tiny mobile kitchens are mostly thrilled to be serving customers again, they told Billy Penn. However, with many downtown offices still empty and a squeezed supply chain hiking prices, rebounding from the pandemic has not been easy.

Disruption in global supply chains has affected prices — with the cost of both wholesale ingredients and serving materials skyrocketing.

“Everything went up pricewise,” explained one worker who said he’s staffed the griddle at a cart near City Hall for the past 8 years. He requested anonymity in order to speak freely, because he doesn’t own the business. “The chicken box that we used to buy was $32. [At] maximum it would reach $40 or $45 a box,” he said, explaining that the same box now costs $90 or more. Even the styrofoam serving trays have grown pricier.

Because of this, customers in Philly will find a typical lamb or chicken over rice platter now costs $7 or $8 at most halal carts, instead of the $6 it cost for the past couple years.

That’s only a bit more expensive, though, and the price point remains appealing to many.

“I think the value is actually really great in the halal carts,” said Amay Tripathi, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s just a lot of food. It’s good enough to last you a few meals.”

Halal cart workers, particularly in University City, are aware that people like Tripathi make up a large portion of their customer base. The knowledge plays into pricing. Despite wholesale costs doubling, the price of platters has only risen by 25%.

“We think about the students, this is not a businessman’s view,” said Aamir Khan, who works in a brightly colored green truck on the corner of 33rd and Market streets. “We want to give you good food but for a cheap price.”

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Many halal cart workers don’t own the carts they operate in each day, but are paid hourly by those who do. When items are stolen, they have to make up the difference.

“Everything is being counted,” said the City Hall worker. When soda cans are snatched out of the front cooler, he said the cost comes directly out of his paycheck. “Usually the people who are above you, they don’t care.”

If you see a tip jar on the cart’s counter, maybe kick in some cash. Tips are reserved for the cart workers themselves, not their bosses. But they don’t fill up quickly.

“Once you get on the street, there’s less respect,” said the City Hall worker. He’s considered registering the cart with an online delivery service, like DoorDash, to drum up more business.

The lingering effects of the pandemic on the Center City customer base means money is even less likely to flow. “Food truck businesses are dependent on these buildings,” he said, gesturing towards towers that line Dilworth Park. “Now most people aren’t coming to the offices here anymore.”

One day he hopes to start a restaurant of his own, but for now he works beneath continuously scrolling neon lights, confined to a steel cart.

For carts that post up in University City, things are closer to normal, with Penn and Drexel students all back on campus, although some workers say they regularly take 13-hour shifts.

“Now we hope that the business is good because the students [have] come back again,” said Khan at 33rd and Market, smiling a tired smile. “We are happy. The bad days are gone. Now it’s the good days.”