A controversial Bay Ridge food cart is fighting for its life — and its location — after someone installed a pair of metal benches in its usual spot on Fifth Avenue near 86th Street on Thursday.
Two mysterious benches materialized on the neighborhood’s busiest retail stretch after months of tension between Middle Eastern Halal Cart and nearby business owners, who claim the gyro seller pollutes the sidewalk, attracts rowdy drunks, and gets off without paying the same steep rents as brick-and-mortar restaurants.
In fact, one 86th Street bar owner was hoping to uproot the food cart by installing flower beds on its prime piece of sidewalk real estate when the seats popped up sometime after 4 am — after Sammy Kassen, the cart’s manager, closed up shop for the night.
“Once we left, like robbers, they came and put these benches in,” said Kassen, who had to dismiss his workers for the day and tow the cart away, since his business is only licensed to sell at that corner.
It’s not clear who’s behind the benches. The Department of Transportation said it did not authorize the installation of the seats and 86th Street Business Improvement District manager Patrick Condren, whose organization is in charge of overseeing improvements to the area, denied any knowledge of or involvement in their mysterious appearance.
Staffers for Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) and police officers from the 68th Precinct were similarly clueless about the origin of the benches.
But wherever the mismatched street seats — one black and one green — came from, business owners and residents on the block are thrilled to have them.
Tony Gentile, owner of the 86th Street watering hole Lone Star Bar, has long complained about the food cart, going so far as to apply to have planters installed in Middle Eastern’s parking space.
“The corner is filthy,” said Gentile, who insisted he didn’t install the benches himself. “They pour grease onto the sidewalk, they’ve got their customers sitting around eating, and they just leave their garbage. Nobody cleans it up. I see mice and rats coming out of the grate and eating the rice on the sidewalk. It’s a quality of life issue.”
Robert Kundert, whose apartment is directly across the street from Middle Eastern’s typical parking spot, says the cart attracts unsavory characters whose noise keeps him up into the small hours of the morning.
“All night long it’s the same thing. People double-parked, cursing, fighting. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” Kundert said. “When they’re not there during the Muslim holidays, the corner’s quiet.”
Kassen defended the business, saying that Middle Eastern pays permit fees and sales taxes, and that it routinely cleans up its corner.
The benches will only make his staff suffer, according to Kassen.
“We’re like everybody else here,” he said. “We want to work, we want to make money. Our business is permitted to be here. This can’t be legal.”
Kassen might be right — the Department of Transportation says the unsanctioned street seats will be removed, though it’s unclear how long the benches will remain in place, and how long the pita venders will be without a home.
His sidewalk business isn’t popular with neighbors, but Kassen says his cart shouldn’t be held responsible for the behavior of its customers, considering it might actually foster peace among Bay Ridge night owls
“There’s a lot of bars here, a lot of young people,” he said. “If anything, I’d think that the food would calm them down.”