Buyer Be Aware – West Side Rag

Central Park. Photograph by Sara Lewin Lebwohl

By Sara Lewin Lebwohl

Kenna Kolaitos, born and raised on the Upper West Side, recently posted a warning to a local moms group. In it she told a cautionary tale, of interest to anyone who frequents the city’s food carts.

“I don’t usually post things about vendors,” Kolaitos wrote, noting that her mother had worked at a UWS hardware store and was “all about small businesses,” like vendors who sell hot dogs in the streets of the UWS. “I’m all for people trying to make money, but when it’s sneaky it really burns my cookies,” Kolaitos wrote.

The cookie-baking experience began when Kolaitos and his family stopped to buy hot dogs from a food cart from Nathan on Central Park West near 81st Street, by the Natural History Museum. Kolaitos ordered six hot dogs, fries with cheese, and two drinks. She didn’t ask for the price before ordering, but then was told the total was $56.

Kolaitos took the food and walked away, shocked by the stickers. She went back to the seller and asked for a breakdown of the $56 tab. According to Kolaitos, the salesman had trouble giving her numbers that made sense, and when she pulled out her calculator, “he acted like I was bothering him and he wasn’t very friendly.” When she learned that he had charged $10 in “tax”, she requested and received a refund of a few dollars. She left – only to find out later that her credit card had been charged $70, not the $56 he quoted her. Kolaitos disputes this accusation.

Was it an isolated experience? Maybe, maybe not. The Rag recently heard Eric Kabakoff, who attends UWS, talk about his “breathtaking” purchase of ice cream from a cart inside Central Park: $25 for a cone, a double cone and a sundae . Equally shocking, Kabakoff said, was the $10 charge for a pretzel and water he recently paid a vendor on 72nd Street and Central Park West.

“I have nothing against those guys,” Kabakoff said. “It’s just a shock to the system when you end up paying double what you thought.”

So how do you know the correct prices at the many food vendors in and around Central Park? A city parks department official told the Rag via email that “prices are set in advance and vendors are required to post price lists.”

The official added that the city “recently approved an increase in certain items to account for factors such as the rising cost of goods and transportation prices.” Vendors who violate the rules are supposed to receive a summons from the parks department, according to the official.

To see if reality matched the city’s regulatory framework, I visited a few UWS vendors, starting with the one where Kabakoff bought his son a pretzel. I asked the prices for a hot dog and a pretzel: $6 each, I was told. I asked if the seller had a price list; the answer was no. There was no price listed and the price of the hot dog seemed oddly high.

Next stop: the west side of Sheep Meadow. There I found a cart that listed prices for each item, including $4 for a hot dog, $3 for a pretzel, and, at most, $5 for ice cream (only if it’s Haagen Dazs) .

I asked the seller how he set his prices. He told me that all sellers are supposed to have the same prices, but some get greedy and charge more (his price list had some obvious changes).

My last stop was at a cart outside Cherry Hill, where I asked the price of a hot dog: $3.

Wow, I thought. Spot on. – this is the price indicated by the city for a hot dog. Again he quoted the number after seeing me looking for a price list, which was hidden under bags of crisps.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to grab a bite from a food cart, don’t just order. Check to see if there’s a price list so you know what you’re getting yourself into. If there is no price list, expect the unexpected. It would be wise, at least, to ask the price before you find yourself stuck with a crazy expensive hot dog.

A full list of prices and city regulations can be found here.