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Food Carts Get a High End Reboot

​March 14, 2016

Anne Kadet, The Wall Street Journal

Joe Urbina’s street-cart menu is similar to those offered by competitors around the city: egg sandwiches, hamburgers, coffee, muffins the size of a baby’s head. But he has one big advantage—the Cadillac of food carts.

Unlike the typical aluminum cart, his steel MRV100 trailer boasts a refrigerator, sink and computerized hybrid energy system that alternates between solar, natural-gas and battery power, rather than a noisy gasoline or diesel generator. The open front makes it easy to chat with customers. Soon to come—a payment-card system.

It’s a big improvement over his last cart, a smoky, noisy beast that was hard to clean. “The old way, fuhgeddaboudit,” he says.

But the best part may be the rent. Mr. Urbina leases the trailer for $1 a month.

In return, MOVE Systems, the Queens-based company unleashing hundreds of these carts throughout the city, hopes to make money on payment-card interchange fees and cart-side advertising, along with natural-gas sales.

Yes, even the humble urban food cart is being targeted in the quest for sleek, corporate efficiency. It’s unsettling, but the change could make life easier for New York’s 4,700-plus mobile food vendors—heroes, in my book—who work long hours in tough conditions serving more than a million customers a day.

Mr. Urbina, a 52-year old Army veteran and retired airline mechanic, says his day starts at 4 a.m. at his Forest Hills, Queens, home where he loads his SUV with hot dogs, hamburgers and eggs purchased from Costco or BJ’s.

Next stop: an Astoria bakery for muffins and rolls. Then he’ll fetch his cart from a Long Island City commissary. By 5:30 a.m. he’s serving coffee at the usual intersection near City Hall. “I know the regulars will be looking for me, and I like to be there,” he says. “My word is my bond.”

He serves breakfast and lunch all day, mostly to city workers, calling them “buddy” or “hon.” A homeless man might get a free pastry. He closes at 4 p.m. and hauls the cart back to Queens for a wash, arriving home in time for dinner. “I’ll sit down and watch Fox News till 9:30 or 10, then lights out,” he says.

A more traditional food cart on 55th Street. Photo: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Urbina says he takes in $400 to $700 a day. But expenses are high. Aside from the cost of provisions and maintaining his SUV, he pays $350 a month to store his cart and $7 to $12 a day to MOVE for natural gas. He estimates his take-home pay at $200 a day.

MOVE says its carts would retail for about $55,000, making them too expensive for most food vendors—hence the bet on alternative revenue sources. The goal is to prove the utility of its high-tech mobile energy system, which can power systems on vehicles ranging from ambulances to dog-grooming trucks.

It’s been a slow start. After a splashy City Hall news conference announcing the food cart program last May, MOVE has just over a dozen carts on the street, it says, including a Korean stand and a vegan vendor.

President and CEO James Meeks says the company has signed leases with more than 400 additional vendors, not to mention a partnership with Nathan’s Famous.The global hot dog giant has several MOVE carts on the streets.

MOVE also has some heavyweight backing. Among investors participating in a recent funding round was Fisher Brothers, a commercial and residential real-estate developer which owns several Midtown office towers.

Customers line up at Joe Urbina's food cart. Photo: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

Partner Winston Fisher says he got interested in food carts while planning the $50 million lobby and plaza renovation of its massive tower at 1345 Sixth Ave. He’s concerned that the food carts surrounding the building will mar the aesthetics.

He cites, in particular, the hot dog carts, “With too many umbrellas on top.”

Mr. Fisher says some property owners would like to banish the carts altogether. But he’s a street-food fan. “Some of the best gyros I’ve ever had were from Rafiqi’s,” he says, adding that he wants the carts to stay—with improvements.

“Building owners will welcome these new carts with open arms,” Mr. Fisher predicts.

I like the old carts, with their surreal, glowing chicken photos, incomprehensible menus and mystery white sauce. The new cart facades, designed by MOVE branding experts, are devoid of weird spelling errors, flashing lights or, indeed, any trace of imperfection.

They are also—to borrow a technical term—adorable. Brightly painted and sturdy, they look like circus wagons.

Besides, I’m not the one who has to stand in a cart all day long. Mohamed Megahed, who mans one of the new Nathan’s carts on Columbus Circle after years tending hot dog and kebab stands all over the city, says it’s a relief to get away from the fumes, noise and complaints generated by his previous carts.

“With a regular cart, you have to worry about too many things,” he says. “This makes it easy.”