But Mr. Moussa focused on one number: 3,892. This was his place on a waiting list of food vendors in New York.
Like thousands of mobile food vendors in the city, Mr Moussa cannot get a license for his cart, Piata Halal. A long-standing cap limited the number of permits to 5,100, before the 2021 law began allowing 445 new permits per year for a decade. So far, the city has issued 71 new permits.
Nearly 9,500 people were on waiting lists in January, according to the city’s health department. A spokesman said it had issued 1,074 applications – a prerequisite for a permit – since the law came into force, but most applicants had not yet completed the process.
While he waits, Mr. Musa said he and his business partner are paying $18,000 in cash every two years to rent their license from a Bronx taxi driver that Mr. Musa said he acquired decades ago for a few hundred dollars. . Mr Moussa said such arrangements were the only way many vendors, who otherwise follow regulations, could avoid fines and confiscation of their carts.
Mr Moussa hopes to negotiate the same price this summer, but expects the licensee to try to raise it.
“What can I do?” Mr Moussa said, adding: “It has what I need.”
Such is the math of chicken and rice – a heavy pile of boneless chicken with yellow rice and a salad – that swept the city in the 1980s, after a wave of Egyptian immigrants arrived.
Mr Moussa, 30 and also from Egypt, raised the price of the dish by 67 per cent from 2020. He said he closed the business for over a year, working as a food delivery driver.
The cart feature includes tracking dozens of expenses, starting with saving $750 per month on the license. The business, which relies on students and office and construction workers, operates in two 10-hour shifts, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. Sunday; after Easter they work every day.
Mr. Mousa also pays $450 a month for garage space and a commissary in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to store the cart and ingredients. It costs $30 a day for a worker to clean the cart and $65 for a driver to transport it to and from Lower Manhattan.
Most of the cooking is done in the 5-by-10-foot metal cart. A $2,000 generator powers a small refrigerator. the flat grill and fryer burn through a $25 propane tank daily. An $18 bag of basmati rice is usually cooked by committee workers.
In the colder months, the business can make $500 a day, Mr. Mousa said — a net loss, but enough to survive until the summer, when sales range from $700 to $1,400 a day. Chicken over rice is the most popular dish, accounting for two-thirds of revenue.
New York is the only major American city that imposes a cap on food vendor licenses, said John Rennie Short, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But that could change.
In December, City Council members introduced a bill to increase the number of new permits issued annually — to 1,500 from 445 — and lift the cap after five years.
Mohamed Attia, the executive director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, said the changes would be transformative.
Opponents say eliminating the cap could create overcrowding and safety problems.
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the city is reviewing the legislation.
For Mr. Mousa, who lives with his wife and baby in Jersey City, NJ, a legal license could save him significant amounts of money. He said he also has an ownership interest in two nearby carts that also use borrowed licenses.
Enough savings, perhaps, to start his retirement. “At 50,” he said, “I’ll be fishing in a lake.”
Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrew Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development by Gabriel Gianordoli and Aliza Aufrichtig.