Shawarma and fries on the go, or a sit down with steak and pasta? In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, these dining choices have turned into a political and legal struggle between halal food cart vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants.
With the backing of other business owners, Vincent Gentile, owner of sports bar and adult beer pong venue Lone Star Bar and Grill, launched the campaign Save Our Streets against Middle Eastern Halal Food’s Sammy Kassen and other food cart operators. In response, the vendors have retained attorneys and gotten the support of advocacy groups Urban Justice Center and Vamos Unidos. Since many of the cart vendors are Arab American, racial allegations charge the controversy.
“[Sammy Kassen’s] supporters believe the attacks are motivated by a racist resistance to the growing and largely Arab immigrant population in Bay Ridge,” said Kassen’s attorney Lamis Deek. “Instead of supporting his small business, local civic and government representatives seem to be empowering the attack on the food cart.”
But Gentile and other restaurant owners say the conflict is about fairness in competition. Food cart vendors use the streets rent-free, while traditional restaurants spend thousands on rent and other real estate expenses. “They say that they are being treated unfair because of their race. It’s about economics,” Gentile said. “The real issue is money.”
Islam Baioumy, owner of Halal Express Food, claims that the issue involves both race and economics. “He is a racist. He is jealous. He wants to shut us down because our prices are so cheap.”
Gentile and some local also allege quality-of-life issues. “All night long it’s the same thing. People double-parked, cursing, fighting. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” neighborhood resident Robert Kundert said. “When they’re not there during the Muslim holidays, the corner’s quiet.”
Physical confrontations and allegations of harassment have escalated the controversy. On March 23, someone illegally bolted two street benches to Kassen’s usual spot at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, blocking his business. On May 3, Gentile occupied Kassen’s spot with a table. Kassen alleges that, on the night of May 10, someone repeatedly trained a laser gun signal on him and his employees. Kassen’s attorneys have filed a police report and cease-and-desist letters. Gentile has called for the city to arrest Kassen and seize his cart for allegedly renting his food cart permit, a violation of city law.
“Jaywalking’s a crime, but it’s an open secret that people jaywalk, and it’s an open secret that people rent permits,” said Sean Basinski, an attorney for Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project.