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Can food carts survive the pandemic?

The streets are empty, but Joanna Despas is still cooking. Here’s what it’s like to run a food cart during a pandemic.

A bacon, egg, and cheese bagel on a wooden table.
Street vendors have lost their regular customers. Can they stay afloat despite the pandemic?
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When I walk up to Mama Jo’s Breakfast Cart, which is located two blocks away from the MetLife Building in Midtown, Manhattan, she’s already packing up the kitchen. It’s 10:15 am on a Tuesday. She typically doesn’t close until 11 am. These used to be her prime hours, but the pandemic has altered things dramatically for the food cart business. The banks are closed, the tourists are gone, and everyone is working from home. The Mama Jo of the cart’s namesake, real name Joanna Despas, tells me that she’s been lucky to get more than 20 customers per day.

Despas is 70 years old, originally from rural northern Greece, and started up her breakfast cart 48 years ago. She cooks a blend of New York classics (bacon, egg, and cheese) and Mediterranean staples (spanakopita, olive bread) for the passing stream of professionals on their way to the office. Before Covid-19, Despas says, she routinely had lines around the block. These days, she mostly wheels her cart into town to feed the homeless for free, and to fire up the griddle for the handful of construction workers erecting a skyscraper across the street. Despas says she’s made a negligible amount of money all year, and only shows up because it feels better to cook than to sit around at home all day.

Despas holds out hope that eventually, when Broadway is open and the streets are full of tourists again, the street vending industry will bounce back. But she’s pessimistic about the prospects of a total New York City recovery. Can Mama Jo, or any street vendor for that matter, count on an endless flow of hungry yuppies after they’ve spent a year clocking in remotely? Is there going to be a sizable chunk of her clientele who simply won’t go into the office as much? Is the Zoom revolution going to last past the vaccine? Nobody knows for sure.

We talked about how much she misses her regulars, and why, even after the seismic repercussions of the pandemic, she’s still not planning on retiring anytime soon.

Who are your usual clients right now?

Right now, nobody. Everyone works from home. We have construction workers around here, because they are essential workers. But we don’t have business, and I don’t think we’ll have business until the vaccines take hold. And even then, I don’t know how much business will come back. A lot of businesses are closed, and when you look around the city, it’s dead. Vendors are gone. They pop up here and there, but they can’t make any money out here. At this point, I’m coming only for the homeless. There are so many of them, and where else are they going to get food?

So you’re only out here to feed the homeless?

Yes, and I have a bunch of people who help me with that. The construction workers buy food for them. They’re very nice. I have people who give me clothing and shoes that I hand out to them. I’ve noticed a lot more homeless people out here lately. They were always there, but it’s never been like this. They’re all over, and there’s no food. All the vendors have been helping out. Some of them come up to me and say, “There’s a couple people down on Eighth Avenue that need this or that,” and I get it for them. You feel a little better. You’re doing something instead of staying home. It’s good to be occupied.

Why do you think your business won’t bounce back?

I talk to people who work in banks and they like what they’re doing. I think they’re going to come in for a couple days a week and work from home at other times. The residential people here have moved. I think that’s how the city is going to work. It’s not going to be easy for us. If you don’t have a crowd for a year, you’re not going to build it all back the next day. It’s like starting back over from the beginning. That’s not restricted to vendors, the same goes for restaurants and delis.

How are you holding up financially?

No money. We’re not making any money. I’m doing okay. I’m 70 years old and I get my Social Security. My grandmother taught me to always put away money for a rainy day. So I’m okay, and my kids are okay and working from home. The big institutions are making money. The banks, the supermarkets, the franchises, they’re all doing okay. The people who are getting hurt are restaurants and vendors. It’s different out in Brooklyn and Queens, you can see some more life out there. But certainly not out here.

How many customers are you seeing a day?

No more than 20.

And you used to have lines around the block, right?

Oh yeah, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again. But I’m an optimistic person. Maybe if they open up the Broadway shows, we’ll see what happens. But a lot of people have given up in this business. The garage used to have 200 pushcarts. Now we’ve got like, 100? Maybe less? And it gets less and less, because it gets more difficult.

Do you miss your regulars?

Of course. I’ve got a lot of text messages from them. They leave messages on my social media. I’ve got people from all over the world that know me, and they all ask how I’m doing. They say, “I miss your food, I miss you.” They want to go back to normal. I see a lot of fear in people, and I don’t want people to fear. Fear, worry, and stress kills you, completely.

Have you thought about moving the cart elsewhere?

At my age, I’m not going to do that. I’m feeding the homeless, and if I’m not here I don’t know where they’re going to eat. I’m doing it for myself more than anything.

Has anything about this year made you want to retire?

I’m not going to retire. I’m not that kind of person. I’m never going to stay home, because I love what I do. I was only introduced to the idea of retirement in the United States. It’s not as much of a thing in Greece. You see 80-year-olds working the fields out there. I put in 18 hours a day, and sleep like four hours at night. I’m healthy. I cook everything myself. My diet is like the ancient Greeks’ — I’ve been on this corner for 48 years, and I haven’t taken one sick day.