How Egyptian street vendors are adding flavour to New York's food scene

Business is booming for the 'Halal Guys on Sixth Avenue' and their many rivals

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On West 49th Street and Sixth Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan, Joe Caffrey recalls the long queue forming through the night at one of the popular halal street stands run by Egyptian vendors.

“I was with another guy and we actually counted 115 people. We walked to the end of the line and it took about 45 minutes for us to get our food,” said Mr Caffrey, 57, who works nights at a nearby NBC studio.

But Mr Caffrey found a way around the wait for the coveted dishes that attract thousands of New Yorkers and tourists daily.

“We learnt that if you work for NBC, you stand on the side and you show them your ID, and they'll serve you in less than 10 minutes,” he said. “There’s also a special line for Uber and Taxi drivers.”

This recurring scene reflects a trend that has been growing over the past three decades on the busy streets of New York, with the halal label becoming an integral part of the food scene. Egyptian vendors - some of whom have taken this business to an almost industrial level - are largely credited with its rise in popularity.

"Halal" refers to the Islamic method of slaughter that renders meat acceptable to consume. But for most New Yorkers and tourists, it has become a shorthand for lamb or chicken over rice, served with a variety of sauces and salad.

“It's been a staple, basically. When people come here to visit, they say let's go to The Halal Guys on Sixth Avenue,” said Sajina Shrestha, a 23-year-old graduate student who grew up in Jackson Heights in Queens, referring to the yellow-labelled Egyptian street stands that have turned into a popular franchise.

There are no official statistics on the number of Egyptian street food vendors in New York, but across the central business district in Manhattan, a majority of halal stands and hotdog pushcarts seem to be run by Egyptians, with most of the more than two dozen carts and stands we approached in the area run or owned by them.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an influx of Egyptian immigration to the US, and New York in particular, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute.

Sirine Mechbal, an adjunct professor of sociology at Rutgers University, argues that a number of Egyptians choose food vending as an entry-level economic activity, similar to waves of previous immigrants, including the Greeks, who dominated this business in the 1970s and 1980s in New York.

Ms Mechbal argues that Egyptians have introduced and consolidated “a monopoly” on the halal label, which has become integral to the city's street food scene.

Today, there are as many as 20,000 street vendors in the city, selling everything from cooked food, fruits and vegetables, to clothing and art. Most are immigrants and people of colour from different ethnicities and nationalities, according to the Street Vendor Project, a non-profit advocacy organisation.

“Egyptians have a preference for cooking and selling food on the street, just like other Arab immigrants prefer to drive taxis or Uber cars,” said Hicham Hennedi, a 48-year-old Egyptian vendor who works on a popular halal cart on the corner of 77th Street and Lexington Avenue.

Before moving to the US, Mr Hennedi owned a deli business in Egypt. In 2006, he received a visa through the Green Card lottery. Now, Mr Hennedi, who “genuinely enjoys cooking" and “pampering” his customers, serves up sandwiches and on-demand meals to hungry New Yorkers.

A few dozen blocks south, Fathy Ebouelmagd, a hotdog vendor on the corner of 49th Street and Sixth Avenue, argues that newly arrived Egyptian immigrants are often eager - and in most cases desperate - to find work. The high cost of living in the city and the need to support families back home pushes many towards street food vending.

“It’s one of the most accessible options for them, especially those who lack credentials, skills or language fluency to apply for jobs” in the formal economy, explains Mr Eboulmagd, 29, who moved to New York about 14 years ago.

The size of the Egypt-born population in the US grew significantly during the 1980s and 1990s, and a significant number of those newcomers settled in New York.

This surge in Egyptian immigration to the city coincided with a rapid increase in Bangladeshi immigration to New York. Experts have linked the boost in halal street food to the significant increase in the number of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and other Muslim immigrants coming to New York during that period.

They picked another niche industry popular among immigrants: taxi driving.

“All those Muslim cab drivers needed to eat on the spot while doing long hours shifts in the city. And this is how Egyptians discovered this niche market,” said Ms Mechbal.

And it's not only street food. Citywide, the halal label is established today as an integral part of the New York street food scene, from push carts in Times Square and Museum Mile, to chain restaurants, and food trucks roaming the five boroughs. In March 2022, New York even held its first “Halal Restaurant Week”.

Still, the halal label has also made the food vendors targets for abuse. In November, in footage that went viral, an Egyptian-American vendor was confronted on at least two occasions by a man who berated his Islamic faith, threatened his family in Egypt and accused him of supporting Hamas.

Stuart Seldowitz, a career diplomat, was arrested and charged with aggravated harassment, a hate crime and two counts of stalking.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM