Sammy gets a Vendy! Controversial gyro seller is a halal hero, cart advocates say

Sammy gets a Vendy! Controversial gyro seller is a halal hero, cart advocates say
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Sammy Kassen is a halal-cart hero, according to a group of street vendor advocates who want to give the rolling restaurateur a special Vendy award for battling rogue benches and pugnacious bar owners in order to keep his Middle Eastern Halal Cart on Fifth Avenue.

Members of the Street Vendor Project — a group that offers aid to sidewalk merchants — say they will present Kassen with their “Most Heroic Vendor” award during a special ceremony on September 15.

Project officials said they were impressed with how Kassen stood his ground and continued selling gyros near 86th Street in spite of numerous obstacles — including a pair of benches that mysteriously appeared in his spot in March, and an April sit-in demonstration by nearby business owners who felt the food wagon was hurting their bottom lines.

“Kassen and his staff has been standing up for their rights in this location, despite conflicts with the anti-cart, brick-and-mortar businesses in the area,” said Matt Shapiro, an attorney for the Street Vendor Project.

Kassen was humbled by the news.

“We work hard, we do our jobs, we support our families, and we defend our rights,” he said. “I hope this helps raise awareness in my community that all Americans have the right to make an honest living.”

Yet the Street Vendor Project may be honoring an illegal food cart vendor: Sean Basinski, another Street Vendor Project attorney, told this paper in June that Kassen rented his permit to sell food on the street from the actual license holder — which is illegal, although he dismissed the infraction as a minor violation.

“Jaywalking’s a crime, but it’s an open secret that people jaywalk, and it’s an open secret that people rent permits,” the lawyer said, estimating that 60 percent of all street food sellers rent their licenses to grill.

Kassen denied renting the permit, claiming that he rents the cart which has the permit attached to it — something he says is perfectly legal.

Fifth Avenue business owners who have been trying to boot Kassen from Fifth Avenue were unimpressed with the food vendor’s honor.

“It’s a shame when the city allows one criminal enterprise to praise another criminal enterprise for ‘courageous activities’ that are totally illegal,” said Tony Gentile, owner of the Lone Star Bar and leader of the “Save Our Streets” campaign, who said that he and other business owners are suing the city for failing to enforce its street vendor laws.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at (718) 260–4507 or e-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/WillBredderman