Will food cart-hating merchants cease and desist?

Food cart fracas: Dispute over Halal cart ends in injuries
Community Newspaper Group / Will Bredderman

Two Fifth Avenue merchants blocked a food cart from parking on a bustling street corner by illegally bolting benches to the sidewalk at the street vendor’s usual spot, attorneys for Sammy Kassen, the manager of Middle Eastern Halal Cart, claimed this week.

Lawyers from the Street Vendor Project, a advocacy group that fights for the rights of street vendors, slapped Lone Star bar owner Tony Gentile and Brooklyn Bagels Cafe co-owner Mike Boutross with cease-and-desist letters last week, demanding that the duo stop harassing the purveyor of gyros and sodas.

“They placed benches in the spot illegally and they’ve been harassing them through lots of different ways, through the media, and in person by blocking the cart,” said Sean Basinski, a spokesman for the Street Vendor Project.

But Gentile and Boutross denied that they moved the benches, and Boutross added that he had no intention to listen to the request because he hadn’t done anything wrong. He also claimed he threw the note in the trash upon receiving it.

“That guy’s lying through his teeth,” Boutrouss said. “Maybe he doesn’t know who I am or what I look like, and he has me confused with someone else.”

Still, Boutrouss was quick to criticize the cart, claiming that Kassen doesn’t have to pay rent or utilities as brick and mortar merchants do.

“It’s not right that I’m paying $5,000 a month in rent, and this guy is there in the hottest spot in Brooklyn with a permit he pays for once a year,” said Boutross.

Some claim that neighborhood merchants are against the food cart because its run by Middle Easterners, but Boutrouss, who is Lebanese, say his hatred toward Kassen’s rolling kitchen is purely business, not personal.

“You aren’t going to hear me saying ‘those filthy Arabs,’” he said. “I’m a filthy Arab! It’s not about that. It’s about fair competition,”

Gentile has been accused of trying to physically block the cart from parking on Fifth Avenue on March 24 — getting hurt in the process — and took steps to install flower boxes on Kassen’s usual hang out spot.

Yet no one knows who put in the benches, which sprouted up on Fifth Avenue overnight on March 22. Merchants say that one of the benches was uprooted from Fifth Avenue and 87th Street and moved to Middle Eastern Halal Cart’s usual spot.

Kassen said he’s seen both Gentile and Boutross lurking around the cart with tape measures and believes the two men are plotting against him.

“I’m 100 percent sure they’re in it together,” said Kassen. “I’ve seen them together, measuring the spot.”

Basinski said he wants to meet with Boutross in person to alleviate the bagel shop owner’s concerns.

“We’d like to explain to him the cart is not a threat to him,” said Basinski, citing studies that say mobile vendors do not harm from brick-and-mortar businesses. “They’re half a block away, on the other side of the street, selling a completely different product.”