But Mr. Mousa focused on one number: 3,892. That was his position on a New York City food vendor waiting list.
Like thousands of the city’s mobile food vendors, Mr. Mousa cannot get a permit for his cart, the Halal Plates. A longstanding cap limited the number of permits to 5,100, before a 2021 law began allowing for 445 new permits a year for a decade. So far, the city has issued 71 new permits.
Almost 9,500 people were on waiting lists in January, according to the city’s health department. A spokesman said it had released 1,074 applications — a permit prerequisite — since the law was enacted, but most applicants had yet to complete the process.
While he waits, Mr. Mousa said he and his business partner pay $18,000 in cash every two years to rent their permit from a Bronx cabdriver who Mr. Mousa said obtained it decades ago for a few hundred dollars. Mr. Mousa said such arrangements were the only ways many vendors, who otherwise follow regulations, can avoid fines and confiscation of their carts.
Mr. Mousa hopes to negotiate the same price this summer, but anticipates the permit holder will try to raise it.
“What can I do?” Mr. Mousa said, adding, “He has the thing I need.”
Such is the math of chicken and rice — a heavily spiced mound of boneless chicken with yellow rice and a side salad — which swept the city in the 1980s, after a wave of Egyptian immigrants arrived.
Mr. Mousa, 30 and also from Egypt, raised the dish’s price by 67 percent since 2020. He said he closed the business for over a year, working as a food delivery driver.
Running the cart includes tracking dozens of expenses, starting with saving $750 monthly for the permit. The business, which relies on students and office and construction workers, operates in two 10-hour shifts, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. In the winter, Mr. Mousa and two cooks (paid $150 a day) work Wednesday to Sunday; after Easter, they work every day.
Mr. Mousa also pays $450 monthly for space in a garage and commissary kitchen in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to store the cart and ingredients. He spends $30 a day for a worker to clean the cart, and $65 to have a driver haul it to and from Lower Manhattan.
Most of the cooking happens in the 5-by-10-foot metal cart. A $2,000 generator powers a small refrigerator; the flattop grill and fryer burn through a $25 propane tank daily. An $18 bag of basmati rice is usually cooked by commissary workers.
In the colder months, the business might make $500 daily, Mr. Mousa said — a net loss, but enough to survive until the summer, when sales range from $700 to $1,400 a day. Chicken over rice is the most popular dish, accounting for two-thirds of revenue.
New York is the only major American city enforcing a cap on food vendor permits, said John Rennie Short, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But that could change.
In December, City Council members introduced a bill to increase the number of new permits issued annually — to 1,500 from 445 — and remove the cap after five years.
Mohamed Attia, the managing director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, said the changes would be transformative.
Opponents say eliminating the cap could create overcrowding and safety issues.
A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the city was reviewing the legislation.
For Mr. Mousa, who lives with his wife and baby in Jersey City, N.J., a legitimate permit could save him significant amounts of money. He said he also has an ownership stake in two carts nearby that also use borrowed permits.
Enough savings, perhaps, to kick-start his retirement. “In my 50s,” he said, “I’ll be fishing on a lake.”
Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrew Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development by Gabriel Gianordoli and Aliza Aufrichtig.