The Heart in the Cart

By Madison Back

When it comes to street vending, for Thiru Kumar, it’s not the size of the cart, but the size of the heart.

Over the last decade, food carts and trucks have been a trend on the rise in New York City. The familiar yellow and blue umbrellas of Sabrett hot dog stands have been overshadowed by the big and intimidating gourmet-style food trucks popping up all over Manhattan. However, the glitz and glamour of the trendy food truck corporations has not managed to detract from the business seen by a small, green umbrella topped cart that stands alone outside of Washington Square.

The NY Dosas cart, operated by Kumar from Monday through Saturday from 11am to 4pm, is the definition of “small but strong”. He proudly serves freshly prepared vegan and vegetarian Indian food that leaves NYU students, tourists, and native New Yorkers alike salivating in line for their lunch time fix.

So how does the tiny one-man stand compete with the trendy trucks of the city? It may not be just the delicious and nutritious food that keeps customers coming back. Kumar, the owner and sole operator of NY Dosas, is a man truly devoted to his craft. A native Sri Lankan, Kumar moved to the Big Apple in 1995, where he spent his time hopping from job to job, working at gas stations, factories, and restaurants. It wasn’t until 2001 that he opened what would become an internationally recognized food cart.

“I wanted to do something different and healthy,” Kumar said. A vegetarian and healthy food advocate, he wanted to provide an option he didn’t find so readily available to New Yorkers in the area ten years ago. “I am glad I am helping NYU students have choices.”
Using his grandmother’s recipes, he makes 90% of the food completely on his own to serve a bounty of customers daily, often running out of menu items as the end of the day nears. Since opening his cart in 2001, Kumar has not changed its location, stationed conveniently outside of Washington Square Park on West 4th and Sullivan Street.
“I’ve only been [located] here because NYU is here, [there are] lots of students and artists, the park is here, people can sit and eat, it’s a convenient spot, a convenient space,” explains Kumar. “I have a lot of repeat customers. All of my regulars have my number, they text me.” Kumar keeps a stack of glossy business cards which include his email address, phone number, Twitter, and Facebook page on hand to give out to any new customers that come along.

For the past ten years, Kumar has been cooking up healthy, tasty, and traditionally Indian foods for both his vegan and omnivorous customers. Though their dietary limitations vary, there is one thing that remains consistent across customers that cannot be ignored: their allegiance to Kumar and his food.

“I’m definitely loyal to him,” said Max Raskin, an NYU junior, of Kumar. A frequent visitor to street vendors, Raskin said, “I will eat anything that’s good and if it’s from a food cart, it usually means it’s good.” However, Raskin has stayed true to NY Dosas, as he is a returning customer since his freshman year at NYU. After receiving his spicy masala dosa, Raskin thanks Kumar, noting that it is “just what the doctor ordered”.

Kumar treats all customers who approach his food cart as if they were an old friend, and, most of the time, they are.

Jacob Shufro, a part-time third year student at NYU, was referred to the Dosa cart by his own mother. Shufro has been a fan of Kumar’s food for the past five months, going so far as to utilize the NY Dosa Twitter page for urgent updates. “Dosa is the only Twitter account that I get forwarded to my phone,” he said. The Facebook page also provides updates on the status of the cart, alerting its 184 fans of unexpected closings and other important announcements.

Due to the cart’s overwhelming popularity, Kumar has plans to open a fast-food style restaurant in 2012. He plans to open the restaurant in the same NYU area so that his regular, devoted customers can enjoy it.

As for now, however, Kumar wouldn’t trade his job for any other. “Right now I’m happy with what I’m doing, I’m happy with the people, every day I meet different people,” he said. “I love my job.”

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