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Roll over hot dogs, the shawarma has arrived

| 31/08/2007 | Reply

Roll Over, Hot Dogs
Friends Jump Into an Expanding Street-Cart Scene With Shawarmas and a Dream

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; F01

In
a city whose street-food scene has long been dominated by boiled hot
dogs, any out-of-the-ordinary vendor cart is sure to attract attention.
And not necessarily the kind the owners want.

In this case, it is a trio of Secret Service officers who descend on the stainless-steel box on wheels that two young men opened this month two blocks from the White House.
On the cart’s third day of business, the officers ask to see the men’s
identification, operating license and health department inspection.
After a slight scramble, no problem. All papers in order.

That leaves an officer with one last question: “What’s a shawarma?”

At
Delle & Campbell’s Halal Luncheonette, on the southeast corner of
14th and G streets NW, it’s a Lebanese-style pita rollup of marinated
spit-roasted chicken along with spicy lamb sausages and a sprinkle of
parsley and onion. The price: $7. The men buy the meat at a halal
butcher, meaning it conforms to Muslim dietary laws.

Delle &
Campbell’s is the first of 21 new food vendor carts that District
officials have authorized after a nearly 10-year moratorium, in an
attempt to encourage a new world of street-food options. After meeting
the new requirement that all vendors have a public space permit tied to
a specific location, dozens more carts are expected to open in the
months ahead, selling pizza, soul food, Korean barbecue, gelato and
more. After subsequent mapping surveys, officials intend to designate
hundreds more sites for vendors in all commercial areas of the city.

Despite
the novelty, though, on opening day at Delle & Campbell’s, few
people stop to read the brief menu posted on the cart below their
motto, “The Vanguards of peace, love and deliciousness.” Fewer still
accept the invitation of co-owner Akindele Akerejah, 23, as he
approaches prospective customers and asks “How you doing, Miss?” or
“Have you had lunch?” Most are in a hurry and can’t be bothered,
saying, simply, “No.”

“Being a pioneer isn’t easy,” says Akerejah, who shares the business with Folarin Campbell, 22.

Regulating
street vendors isn’t, either, which is why city officials imposed the
moratorium on licenses after decades of problems, including fights over
choice locations and uneven collection of taxes and fees. Through
tighter regulation, the new program, launched last fall by three city
departments — Transportation, Health, and Consumer and Regulatory
Affairs — aims to promote small-business development, increase revenue
and, perhaps most important for the downtown lunch-seeking crowd,
encourage menu diversity.

Of the approximately 200 preexisting
licensed sidewalk food vendors in the city, a stark decline from the
1,200 that operated before the moratorium went into effect, only three
do not sell hot dogs or the half-smokes that some call Washington’s
regional specialty.

Since the city put out a call for applicants
six months ago, more than 300 prospective vendors of food or
merchandise have applied for permits in a 120-block area of downtown.
So far, the city has offered 143 sites by lottery in the central
Business Improvement District, including locations on F Street, 14th
Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Of those, 59 were chosen by applicants
who propose to sell food, but only 21 will feature something other than
the same old wieners in buns.

Apparently, despite efforts to encourage more diverse foods, the hot dog habit is hard to break.

“When I first came here from Portland [Oregon]
in 2003, I said, ‘Why are these people only selling hot dogs?’ ” says
Sam Williams, the city’s vending project coordinator. “In other cities
you have amazing foods, like organic vegan burgers, coming from carts.
It was so puzzling to me.” The answer he eventually settled on:
“There’s a fear of the unknown.”

To set a plan in motion, city officials in 2006 surveyed street-food operations and regulations in seven U.S. cities: Miami, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia
and Portland. For District vendors, free orientation meetings that
began last fall offered interpreters in Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and
Mandarin.

One meeting, titled “You Don’t Have to Sell Hot Dogs,”
was held on an icy January night and attracted only three prospective
vendors, including Campbell, who said he intended to sell
steak-and-cheese sandwiches. (“Our food concept changed 12 times,”
Akerejah said later. “At first it was barbecue in general, then
cheesesteak sandwiches, then a deli, then the halal shawarma.”)

Most
discussion at the meeting centered on Health Department requirements.
Other, ongoing sessions encourage the development of solid business
plans and offer help in applying for small-business loans.

A
vendor cart is far less expensive to operate than a bricks-and-mortar
business, and it can be lucrative. Cart prices generally range from
$4,000 to more than $20,000, depending on size and upgrades. Besides
food costs, expenses include $800 a year for a public space permit,
$330 for a basic food license, $100 for a health inspection certificate
and a set tax of $1,500 a year to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue.

Says Williams, “Those hot dog people are always telling me they aren’t making any money.” A report to the D.C. Council last year said that street-food vendors nationwide earn an average of $33,000 a year.

Akerejah
and Campbell were the first to follow the new procedures and acquire
the money needed to buy a cart outfitted with custom features,
including a rotisserie and griddle. With the help of a $15,000 loan
from the Latino Economic Development Corp., they spent about $16,000 on
their four-by-five-foot Halal Luncheonette, which was built in Ontario, Canada, and took eight weeks to complete.

The men, who met as freshmen at Howard University
(Akerejah studied political science and Campbell finance), had hoped to
open in mid-June, but acquiring the health permit took longer than
anticipated. “It’s been a quest to get all the documentation, one of
the most difficult processes you can do,” Akerejah says. Days dragged
on. Then, after the permit was issued, Akerejah’s car was stolen, and
for weeks they had no way to haul the cart to their location. They
eventually opened for their first full day of business Aug. 13.

They
chose the 14th Street site after counting pedestrians at noon at
various spots and clocking 130 in a half-hour at their ultimate
location. With few other vendors nearby, “this corner gives us a chance
to shine,” Akerejah says. They accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express. And why not? “I’d rather have 90 percent of something rather than 100 percent of nothing,” he says.

Their
long-term goal is to have several carts, with employees to run them.
But so far, the city’s regulations, which are under review, require
that the owner of the cart also operate it.

Both men trace their
affection for Middle Eastern food to the street vendors near the famous
Mega Plaza shopping mall on Victoria Island in Lagos, Nigeria,
where both spent time as teenagers. “That’s where boys of my generation
took their sweethearts,” says Akerejah, who takes orders and payments
and drums up business on the sidewalk with a charismatic smile. “And
the shawarmas were lovely, to say the least,” adds Campbell, who works
inside the cart.

Inside, every piece of equipment is compact,
from the dorm-size refrigerator to the 1-quart hand-washing sink.
Campbell, who is over 6 feet tall, puts together the sandwiches and has
little room to move around. A tiny plastic fan provides the only
cooling. Asked how he’s doing, he calls out: “It’s boiling in here.
It’s got to be 120 degrees.”

One of the first customers is Adrienne Baksh. “Where did this come from?” asks Baksh, a legal secretary from Silver Spring,
out for a lunchtime stroll. “I was like, whoa, they are trying to get
halal chicken and rice stands here, like in New York.” Behind Baksh, in
a short line, is John Anderson, who works across the street.

“A
couple of young guys trying to do something different — how could I
not support them?” says Anderson, co-owner of W. Curtis Draper, a
120-year-old Washington tobacco shop. “I hope they succeed. There have
been hot dog carts there that have never made it.”

Despite their
fondness for shawarmas, Akerejah and Campbell had no experience cooking
the compressed, marinated chicken, which they buy from a Virginia
distributor, until opening day. Campbell had calculated that the
15-pound cone of chicken would yield 45 sandwiches for a moderate
profit, and it did. He had no food service experience, but Akerejah had
spent about 18 months at various restaurant jobs.

The shawarmas
and other roll-ups (a doner kebab with just chicken and a merguez with
just lamb sausage) were not an immediate hit. On opening day there were
only six customers between noon and 1 p.m.

Besides the novelty,
it might have had something to do with the bread. Anderson said later
that Delle & Campbell’s pita was “too dry and crumbly” and that he
planned to speak to the men about it. And sure enough, after three days
the men were using new, more pliable pita that made all the difference
in the world.

More changes at Delle & Campbell’s are sure to
follow as the owners get more feedback from customers. Since opening
and after 10 days in business, sales had doubled to a total of 48
sandwiches per day.

Says Akerejah, “We’re still figuring out what we’re doing.”

“But
there is more order,” says Campbell, who added a vegetarian hummus wrap
to the menu after customer requests. “Now we get everything organized
the night before. We’re not struggling, hitching up the cart and
driving with it. Now it’s part of my life.”

Category: Restaurants, The Americas

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