When the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed in March, as the coronavirus ravaged New York, the cluster of pushcarts out front — one of the most coveted food-vending locations in the city — was left with no business.
“No museum, no customers,” said Dan Rossi, 70, a vendor who over 13 years has become known as the museum’s “hot dog king” by holding the top sidewalk-selling spot, directly in front of the Met’s main steps.
Mr. Rossi was not about to pack up. For more than five months, he kept his carts dormant at their location, along Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street in Manhattan, and visited constantly from his suburban home to make sure they were not moved.
Now, with the museum reopening to the public on Saturday, he has fired up his propane grills and resumed selling his $3 dogs and $1 bottles of water. He will again work to lure customers away from the seven vendors who typically flank him offering pretzels, halal food, ice cream and more hot dogs.
The competition can be so intense that the police have been called in over the years to settle turf wars and other disputes. And now, the return of these vending wars that define the street economy in many parts of New York City could be a bellwether for the small business owners who, like Mr. Rossi, rely on tourists and workers for much of their sales.
In normal times, the Met’s steps are typically swarmed with people, allowing him to take in up to $2,000 on a good day.
“It’s a volume business, and there’s no volume now,” he said, gazing at the steps, which for months have been practically deserted.
While the pandemic devastated Mr. Rossi’s business, there was a slight upside: The pause gave him the chance to sleep in his own bed. To prevent his hot dog carts from being pushed aside or seized, he has slept most nights of the past seven years outside the Met, often on a lawn chair inside a cramped cart between the grill and the condiments shelf, his feet sticking out of the cart’s open door.
The city’s parks department once charged heavily for the exclusive right to sell food directly outside the Met, including a contract with a vendor to pay $650,000 a year, at one point. In 2007, Mr. Rossi, a disabled Marine and a Bronx native, simply set up two hot dog carts and began undercutting the prices of the nearby vendor. He said the city’s attempts to oust him — from arrests to court battles to more than 100 tickets — were futile. He refused to move his carts, day or night.
The city eventually stopped charging vendors to sell there.
The health department has long issued 3,100 mobile food-vending permits, which are renewable every two years and include 100 permits for veterans, disabled veterans and people with disabilities. It also issues an additional 1,000 seasonal permits and 1,000 permits for fruit and vegetable stands.
During the height of the virus outbreak in the spring, the city declared the vendors essential workers, and many of them remained in business. In some hard-hit neighborhoods — like Jackson Heights and Corona, both in Queens — food carts were crucial in providing meals, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the nonprofit Street Vendor Project, which represents thousands of such sellers in New York.
More recently, vendors have taken another hit by losing business to the nearly 10,000 restaurants that have set up outdoor seating, she said, adding that the sellers were already reeling because they could not obtain virus-related government relief for their businesses.
Mr. Rossi said he survived the past five months on Social Security and military pension payments.
He entered the industry by building hot dog carts in the 1980s and gradually bought some 500 cart permits, which he leased to individual vendors. He bought a house in Greenwich, Conn., and enjoyed an empire worth millions. Then the city cracked down on multiple permit holders in the 1990s to make licenses available for individuals and revoked all but one of his permits, the mobile food-vending license he still holds.
He jokes that he has gone “from rags to riches to below rags.” After being told by the authorities several years ago that he could no longer sleep in his cart, he began spending most nights stretched out across the front seats of his white van parked nearby.
Mr. Rossi’s carts stand side by side. He operates one, and his daughter Elizabeth, also a disabled Marine, holds a permit for the other. Mr. Rossi watches the spot as a helper rushes one cart at a time for a quick cleaning.
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The only time he moves them both, he said, is for the annual celebrity-stocked Met Gala, and even then, the carts are back in position not long after the last limousine departs.
Through sheer tenacity, Mr. Rossi claimed his curbside location. He spent nights in jail, he said, and prepared his own legal briefs to defend his claim: that his right to vend there, without paying the city, stemmed from an arcane state law dating to the Civil War that allowed veterans free vending permits.
Mr. Rossi said that he argued in court that the state law overruled city regulations and allowed him to vend in areas that would otherwise be off limits.
The city did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
New York City food vending battles can be intense, and some of the most severe ones have played out in front of the Met.
After Mr. Rossi challenged the city’s enforcement, other veteran-operated carts also began vending outside the museum. At the height of the vending wars in 2014, the area was swamped with nearly 30 vending carts, creating a smoky maze in front of the museum.
Eventually, the city thinned the herd to fewer than 10, citing limits on available curb space.
“The food carts are part of the street culture of New York, and it’s exciting to see that coming back,” said Mr. Noble Barrack, who has found temporary work organizing a crew that takes temperatures of visitors before they enter the Met.
Ms. Shapiro, who has found work in a medical office, said, “I know what they’re going through because our own industry is also so dependent on New York coming back.”
The hot dog king is also hoping for a comeback.
“We’ll see what happens this week,” Mr. Rossi said. “But I tell you, I think it’s going to be one tough winter, boy.”