By Sara Lewin Lebwohl
Kenna Kolaitos, born and raised on the Upper West Side, posted a warning recently with a local moms group. In it she told a cautionary tale, of interest to anyone who patronizes the city’s food carts.
“I don’t usually post things about vendors,” Kolaitos wrote, noting that her mom had worked at an UWS hardware store and she’s “all for small business,” like the vendors peddling hot dogs on UWS streets. “I’m all for people trying to make a buck, but when it’s underhanded it really burns my biscuits,” Kolaitos wrote.
The biscuit-burning experience began when Kolaitos and her family stopped to get hot dogs from a Nathan’s food cart on Central Park West near 81st Street, by the Museum of Natural History. Kolaitos ordered six hot dogs, fries with cheese, and two drinks. She did not ask the price before ordering, but then was told the total came to $56.
Kolaitos took the food and walked away, in sticker shock. She returned to the vendor and asked for a breakdown of the $56 tab. According to Kolaitos, the vendor had difficulty giving her numbers that made sense, and when she pulled out her calculator, “he acted like I was bothering him and he wasn’t very friendly.” When she heard he had charged $10 in “tax,” she demanded, and got, a refund of a few dollars. She left – only to find later that her credit card was charged $70, not the $56 he had quoted her. Kolaitos is disputing that charge.
Was this an isolated experience? Maybe, maybe not. The Rag heard recently from Eric Kabakoff, who frequents the UWS, about his “jaw dropping” ice cream purchase at a cart inside Central Park: $25 for one cone, one double cone, and one sundae. Equally shocking, said Kabakoff, was the $10 charge for a pretzel and water that he recently paid a vendor on 72nd Street and Central Park West.
“I don’t hold anything against these guys,” said Kabakoff. “It’s just a shock to the system when you wind up paying twice what you thought you would.”
So how are we to know the correct prices at the numerous food vendors in and around Central Park? A city Parks Department official told the Rag by email that “prices are established in advance, and vendors are required to post price lists.”
The official added that the city “recently approved an increase for certain items to account for factors like the rise in cost of goods and transportation prices.” Vendors who violate the rules are supposed to get a summons from the parks department, according to the official.
To see whether reality matched the city’s regulatory framework, I visited a few UWS vendors, starting with the one where Kabakoff bought his son a pretzel. I asked the prices for a hot dog and a pretzel: $6 each, I was told. I asked if the vendor had a price list; the answer was no. There was no price listed, and the price of the hot dog seemed suspiciously high.
Next stop: the west side of the Sheep Meadow. There, I found a cart that listed the prices of each item, including $4 for a hot dog, $3 for a pretzel, and, at most, $5 for ice cream (only if it’s Haagen Dazs).
I asked the vendor how he set his prices. He told me that all vendors are supposed to have the same prices, but some get greedy and charge more (His price list sported a few evident alterations.)
My last stop was at a cart In front of Cherry Hill, where I asked the price of a hot dog: $3.
Wow, I thought. Spot on. – that’s the price the city lists for a hotdog. Then again, he quoted the number after he saw me scouting for a price list, which was hidden under bags of chips.
Bottom line: if you are looking to grab a bite from a food cart, don’t just order. Check to see if there is a price list so you know what you are getting into. If there is no price list, expect the unexpected. It would be wise to, at least, ask the price before you get stuck holding a crazy expensive hot dog.
A full list of prices, and city regulations can be found here.