On a small patch of sidewalk in front of Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Waled Eldwik sells foil-wrapped hot dogs to a pair of young women in heels and halters, millennials out for a night of barhopping on Glenwood Avenue.
In the hustle and bustle of Raleigh’s nightlife, Eldwik’s food cart draws passersby like an oasis in the middle of a desert. The bright yellow umbrella atop his stand is a welcome sight to people stumbling out of clubs at two a.m. with a craving for something salty.
Eldwik has been selling hot dogs and chicken kabobs in Raleigh for almost 20 years, he told the INDY.
“We used to do this even before [the city council] assigned us spots,” he says. ”I moved from New York to here, so we were working with them to set the rules. They didn’t know anything about the law, the vending business, so we helped them.”
After decades in business, however, Eldwik’s food cart may be about to shut down. A recent change to the hours he’s allowed to operate will make it impossible for him to make money, he says.
“Now they turn on us,” says Eldwik, offering a dire summation of the situation.
Two weeks ago, the Raleigh City Council voted 7–1 that food carts should close by one fifteen a.m., effectively killing Eldwik’s source of income. The food cart operator usually arrives downtown around 10 p.m., setting up his cart so people will see him as they’re going into clubs, he says. Then, as bars close and people emerge around one thirty or two a.m., they’ll stop by to get a bite to eat.
About 70 percent of Eldwik’s business comes between one and two thirty a.m., he says. Until the city council vote, food carts had been allowed to operate until three a.m. Now, as the change goes into effect December 16, they’ll have to close by one fifteen and be off the street by one forty-five.
“It’s gonna kill us,” Eldwik says. “It’s gonna kill the business. What we can do? We still work until one a.m., until one fifteen a.m. This is what we’ve been doing for 20 years, so what else to do?”
Eldwik, who lives in Raleigh, has struggled to make a living during the pandemic, he says. His food cart is his main source of income, and he usually also works during the day, outside museums or government buildings. With everything shut down, however, there were no customers. And since he wasn’t a restaurant, he couldn’t get any government assistance.
With COVID on the loose, Eldwik made ends meet by working in restaurants and picking up gigs as a DoorDash and Grubhub driver, he says. But now, it’s not COVID that’s taking money out of his pocket; it’s the government.
“I have a mortgage, I don’t want to lose my house,” he says. “That’s the dream here, you come to America, you get a home. Now, we’re gonna face [hardship] again. Before it was destiny, it was a disease, COVID-19. Now, we’re facing it because the city council wants it.”
Despite pleas from operators and owners of food cart companies, the vote by the city council was overwhelmingly in favor of downtown residents, who have complained about the noise and congestion nightlife on Glenwood creates.
Glenwood South has long been a problematic street for police, who are often called upon to respond to shootings or fights in the area. Of the 132 guns confiscated downtown by police in 2018, 57 were seized in Glenwood South, according to a News & Observer report. Citations for less serious crimes like parking violations, public intoxication, indecent exposure, and public urination number in the thousands.
“[The change in hours] is a tool that can be utilized by [Raleigh Police Department] to bring that particular area under control,” said council member Stormie Forte during the November meeting. “And to avoid the additional issues as it relates to folks spilling out of the bars and lingering in the area causing a lot of noise, and then filtering into communities after three or four o’clock in the morning.”
Food cart operators, however, say they’re being blamed for problems that already exist.
“The current congestion is not caused by vendors on the street,” said Ammar Jawad, president of food cart company Taste of New York. “Sidewalks are full of people talking and hanging out, and they would continue to do that even if we weren’t there.”
Council member Jonathan Melton, the lone dissenter in the November vote, shares some of Jawad’s concerns. Melton says he voted no because he was worried about putting pushcart owners out of business, he says. He was also worried about creating a bigger problem by limiting late-night food options for people who have been drinking.
“I understand we’re trying to make sure folks are safe when they go out and have a good time, but I don’t necessarily believe that folks waiting to get food from a pushcart are the reason some of the other issues on Glenwood South are occurring,” Melton says.
“The council and the city are doing things to address some of the unintended negative consequences of having an entertainment district in Glenwood South. They’re increasing lighting, they’re having more police presence to crack down on gun violence.”
Melton, who is working with Downtown Raleigh Alliance to revitalize downtown, suggests the city might consider pushcarts an asset. Not only are they small businesses, but they also create more food access in the area.
“I’m all for making sure we’re addressing legitimate concerns, but I don’t want to quell the good aspects of Glenwood South,” Melton says. “And I certainly don’t want to do that at the expense of small business owners. It just felt like the wrong decision.”
This isn’t the first time Raleigh has considered changing the hours of operation for food carts. In 2019, it was suggested as a way to get people off the street earlier and make the downtown district safer.
But over the years, it’s become clear that the controversy over food carts isn’t really about food carts. It’s about the boisterous behavior of club-goers who linger in surrounding neighborhoods until three or four in the morning. It’s also, to a lesser extent, about the difference of opinion between longtime Raleigh residents (who want their neighborhoods to stay quiet and calm) and younger adults moving into the area (who want the city to have a better nightlife).
For urban millennials and young tourists, Raleigh isn’t much to look at. Compared to cities like Memphis or even Asheville, after-dark activities are thin on the ground. Many residents love Raleigh’s wealth of restaurants and microbreweries, but by midnight, the city is a quiet place.
One of the few exceptions is Glenwood Avenue, where bars and clubs stay open until two a.m. Kristin Hommel, a young woman who was out with her friends Friday night, says the chicken kabobs at Eldwik’s food cart have “literally kept me alive multiple times.”
Hommel is baffled by the city council’s decision, she adds.
“People who are out here that late are usually very, very drunk and having food in their system helps make them a little more solid, less volatile,” she says. “[It] gives them an excuse to take a pause, get a little more sober, and make better choices. Having the food carts forced to leave before the bars even close makes no sense to me.”
The debate over how to keep downtown areas safe at night has raged for years. The fight between development advocates and people who want to keep Raleigh residential has been going on even longer.
But in the meantime—as city council members debate policy and middle-class Raleighites sign petitions—it’s gig workers who suffer the consequences. These are people who don’t live paycheck to paycheck but on Venmo payments and tips. They’re trying to build a life for themselves in a tough world, surrounded by strangers.
A block away from Eldwik’s food cart, another operator takes payment from a short blond woman in a sparkly dress. Approached, he conveys he doesn’t speak English, only Arabic. After a painstaking pause, a translation app reveals he immigrated from Egypt six months ago.
There are a few words he knows, though.
“No family,” he says. “No friends.
“I am alone here.”
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