Savory smells of sizzling onions and marinated meat waft from Rachid Tahzima’s oil-slicked grill inside his Halal Brother cart, parked on a noisy strip of Broadway under the elevated 1 train tracks near West 231st Street.
Many might think food carts like the Morocco native’s isn’t kept to the same standards as, say, Malecon Restaurant nearby. But that’s not the case for Tahzima, who is diligent about keeping his cart sanitized and sparkling. And when the city’s health department finally shows up to give his cart its first-ever letter grade, Tahzima knows he’ll shine.
Mobile food carts like Halal Brother are now receiving the letter grades the same way restaurants have since 2010. While some owners have griped about grading fairness and getting fined for violations, they’ve more or less come to terms with the practice, with now more than 90 percent of the city’s 24,000 restaurants earning an A based on cleanliness, food preparation, and other factors that could affect a customer’s health.
Until now, the city’s more than 5,000 food carts and trucks have been inspected, but not graded. But last month, the health department dished out the first couple dozen or so grades in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens — mostly A’s.
Inspectors examine ingredients for freshness while ensuring work equipment and surfaces are organized and immaculate. Even if vendors are cited for minor violations — like improperly maintained flooring or improper storage of ice-handling materials — that may not necessarily stop them from receiving an A.
The health department announced last November it would start grading carts and trucks, while also attaching location-sharing devices to the vehicles to help inspectors find them, according to reports. The measure follows passage of a bill sponsored by Forest Hills councilwoman Karen Koslowitz last summer. Food carts and trucks are to be evaluated on the same criteria as restaurants, by the same health inspectors, subject to the same schedule of fines, with violations and grades posted on the city’s OpenData website.
The department aims to grade all mobile vendors within the next two years, with four inspectors added to a more than 100-strong staff in an attempt to expedite the effort.
Vendors — and restaurateurs — who receive less than an A grade can take another stab at addressing problems before a re-inspection. Meanwhile, the health department reportedly no longer fines businesses with top grades for minor violations.
Tahzima’s customers, meanwhile, seem to agree grades for food carts is a good thing. On a recent cold afternoon, Jeremy Serrano of Marble Hill stopped by Halal Brother for a hot sausage on grilled pita.
“That should be good,” Serrano said of Tahzima’s cart getting graded, “so we could know how service is going, how sanitized he keeps his cart, how he keeps his food.” Yet Serrano already predicts the outcome — Tahzima “deserves an A.”
Norwood resident Mike Williams makes a point of filling up on Tahzima’s food just about every time he finds himself in Kingsbridge craving chicken over rice. Now that Tahzima’s cart — along with thousands of others — are set to get letter grades, it could reassure regulars like Williams their food is safe to relish.
Not that he was concerned in the first place.
“It’s a good idea,” Williams said. “Just holds them to the same standards as a restaurant. They should have to at least, for the safety of the public, be inspected just like anybody else.”
Yet, while navigating government regulation can be tough for just about any eatery, mobile food vendors face “unique challenges,” said Matthew Shapiro, legal director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group for vendors.
“They have to basically bring everything they need to set up every day,” like running hot and cold water, which most are required to have, Shapiro said. While a bricks-and-mortar restaurant relies on a building’s water supply, vendors must lug hot and cold water tanks from their commissary daily.
That can pose problems in winter when tanks freeze as temperatures plummet, Shapiro said, preventing water from running properly and even risking a violation for the vendor.
But it’s also particularly tough for vendors because they’re not granted some of the allowances restaurants enjoy — like when it comes to maintaining food at established safe temperatures to prevent the start of food-borne illnesses. Restaurants, Shapiro said, are basically given a bit more leeway.
Still, even given unique challenges, Shapiro supports vendors receiving letter grades.
“Vendors had already been subject to the same rules,” he said, “but they don’t get the benefit of having that A grade to show off to the public that their cart is just as sanitary and safe as a restaurant would be.”
And Tahzima — who’s been selling food from his spot south of West 231st around two years — is confident that when inspectors make their way to his cart, they’ll reward his cleanliness. At the same time, he admits he’s a bit worn down after more than a decade feeding hungry mouths prowling city streets.
He’d like to one day join his cousin in Minnesota working at his Middle Eastern restaurant. But in the meantime, he’s gearing up for his next inspection.
“It’s good,” Tahzima said of expecting a grade soon. “You have to be clean, everything good.” And given his diligence — gloves on hand, soap, paper towels, hot and cold water, ice, keeping food sufficiently hot, he’s gunning for an A.
“I hope so,” Tahzima said. “I need the customers.”