Halal cart prices rise as Philadelphia street vendors try to adapt

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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.

The salespeople who run the tiny mobile kitchens are mostly happy to serve customers again, they told Billy Penn. However, with many downtown offices still empty and a tight supply chain driving up prices, bouncing back from the pandemic has not been easy.

The disruption of global supply chains has affected prices, with the cost of wholesale ingredients and serving materials soaring.

“Everything has gone up in price,” explained a worker who said he had been tending to the hot plate of a cart near City Hall for 8 years. He requested anonymity in order to speak freely, as he does not own the company. “The box of chicken we were buying was $32. [At] at most it would be $40 or $45 a box,” he said, explaining that the same box now costs $90 or more. Even polystyrene serving trays have become more expensive.

For this reason, customers in Philadelphia will find a typical dish of lamb or chicken over rice now costs $7 or $8 at most halal carts, down from the $6 it cost the past two years.

It’s only a bit more expensive, however, and the price is still attractive to many.

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

Halal cart workers, especially in University City, are aware that people like Tripathi make up a large part of their clientele. Knowledge plays into pricing. Despite the doubling of wholesale prices, the price of trays only increased by 25%.

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

Many halal cart workers do not own the carts they use every day, but are paid hourly by those who do. When items are stolen, they must make up the difference.

“Everything is counted,” said the town hall employee. When soda cans are ripped from the front cooler, he said the cost came directly from his paycheck. “Usually the people above you don’t care.”

If you see a tip jar on the cart counter, maybe give some money. Tipping is reserved for the carters themselves, not their bosses. But they don’t fill up quickly.

“Once you’re on the street, there’s less respect,” the town hall worker said. He plans to register the cart with an online delivery service, like DoorDash, to generate more business.

The lingering effects of the pandemic on downtown clientele mean that cash is even less likely to flow. “The food truck businesses depend on these buildings,” he said, pointing to the towers that line Dilworth Park. “Now most people don’t come to offices here anymore.”

One day, he hopes to open his own restaurant, but for now, he works under constantly scrolling neon lights, confined to a steel cart.

For carts showing up in University City, things are closer to normal, with Penn and Drexel students all back on campus, though some workers say they regularly take 1 p.m. shifts.

“Now we hope business is good because students [have] come back,” Khan told 33rd and Market, smiling a weary smile. “We are happy. The bad days are over. Now it’s the good days.”