Recession reaching the food carts

Sami Dakko, 70, at his Rami's Luncheonette food cart where he sells Middle Eastern cuisine to the Penn campus, is facing tougher times.
Sami Dakko, 70, at his Rami's Luncheonette food cart where he sells Middle Eastern cuisine to the Penn campus, is facing tougher times.
Posted: July 23, 2009

It's late in the afternoon - near closing time for Rami's Luncheonette, a food cart on 40th and Locust Streets - and Sami Dakko is waxing philosophical.

"When the rain comes," the owner says, peering at the empty sidewalk, "it comes for everybody.

Dakko's is the consummate Ellis Island tale. Though a successful real estate developer in his native Lebanon, Dakko hungered for the promise of American shores, bringing his family across the pond to a relative's place in Havertown in 1985. With no culinary experience to speak of, he opened a Middle Eastern food cart, named for his eldest son, on the west end of Penn's campus just months later.

Hasn't left since.

But this year, for Dakko and so many others, has been different: The economic crisis has taken a sizable chunk out of his bottom line. For a cart that has helped finance the lives of a wife and three kids - including the college education of his youngest son - the lean times represent a marked shift.

"I think it's my fault, not the business," Dakko said. "I'm getting old."

The facts, however, don't seem to support his self-effacing theory.

"Instead of sandwich and drink, he buys sandwich without drink," Dakko said of the typical customer. "People tighten up a little bit."

More significantly, the cost of ingredients - pita, spices, lamb meat - has risen dramatically, according to Dakko. At the same time, his prices haven't changed in five years, and customer flow is roughly the same, by his estimate. (He does no formal accounting.) Thus, despite relatively lateral movement in prices and foot traffic, Rami's has become a depreciating product.

Similar trends have been reported industry-wide. John Hemo, owner of Hemo's on 38th and Walnut Streets, says that bread and cheese prices have climbed steadily over the past year. His soft drink distributor has upped the ante as well, raising wholesale prices from $14 to nearly $19 for every 24-drink case. Even non-edible items, such as paper bags and straws, have burned ever-increasing holes in the wallets of cart operators.

"Last year, nobody felt it," said Paul Tolis, owner of Paul's on Broad and Arch Streets. "[Now], we're all broke."

Tolis - whose cart is down 30 percent this year, he estimates - says that customers are gravitating toward less expensive items, like hot dogs ($1.25), while pricier sandwiches like the cheesesteak ($3.75) become a much tougher sell.

And in some cases, woes have begotten woes. Carts like 17th Street Falafel, between Market and Ludlow Streets, have seen customer flow tumble as the nearby law firms they serve continue to trim staff.

"Even lawyers are getting laid off," griped owner Joseph Koday.

For Dakko, the crunch has presented a simple, devastating dilemma: slog through the downturn on the strength of tabouli and cooking grease or retire here, as he had planned to do around this time, and risk losing everything he's worked over two decades to secure.

Dakko just turned 70, or is about to, depending on which documents you choose to believe. He has skin cancer - treatable, his doctors tell him, but visible in splotches up and down his left leg.

"See that red bump?" he says, uncorking the signature smirk that comes complimentary with any gyro or falafel order. "That's cancer."

Given the area's cost of living, Dakko says he couldn't last another year in this country without Rami's. His $259 Social Security check doesn't even cover the electric bill.

Finding an alternative source of income is also out of the question, he says. Since emigrating, Dakko has never learned to read or write in English. Never had to - his wife, Hilda, puts together the menus that appear on the side of the cart.

"I go here, I go home, I eat, I sleep, I come back," Dakko said of his decades-old routine. "I don't know what's next street, man."

So where does Dakko's story end? More than likely, where it began. He's found a place back home in Beirut, where the cost of living is far lower, he says. There's no moving date in the works just yet, but Dakko believes he and Hilda could be on a plane as soon as this winter.

Locals say he'll be taking some of the area's most authentic Middle Eastern grub with him. On the student-run Penn site PennFoodTrucks.com, Rami's receives a perfect five stars for quality, friendliness, and "bang for the buck," as well as four stars apiece for speed and convenience.

Rony Matar, 32, a mechanic who himself emigrated from Lebanon in 2001, stops at Rami's for lunch nearly every day, often to pick up a thick lentil soup and the vegetarian platter - a medley of steamed vegetables like eggplant squash, carrots, onions, and green peppers, served with hummus, rice pilaf, and fresh pita.

"Before I knew Sami," he said, "I used to eat McDonald's every day."

Ben Plotnick, 20, a Penn student and a Rami's devotee since 2007, thinks he'll miss the man as much as the meal.

"There's other places that have good falafel - not as good as this," he said. "But there's no other place that has a guy like Sam."

It's later in the afternoon now, sidewalk full of nothing but leaves and pebbles.

"I make more fun than business," Dakko offers, leaning out the window to get a better look at foot traffic.

He beams as a young woman ambles over for a falafel and a drink.

"Hallo, beautiful," he says.

Dakko disappears in the back, whirrs by the ordering window to retrieve a missing ingredient, and emerges moments later with the spoils.

"That'll be $5," he says, grinning. "Plus $20 for tip."


Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-4193 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.

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