The 24-Hour Fruit Vendors in Chelsea
"Levent is actually part of a produce vending dynasty—he is a third-generation fruit hawker, following the footsteps of his grandfather and father in Turkey."
Every day is a "CRAZY DAY" for Levent, a 24-year-old Turkish-born fruit vendor at the corner of 27th Street and Eighth Avenue. Sometimes it's Crazy Berry Day (two tubs for $5), other days it's Crazy Mango Day (four for $4). Crazy Eggplant Day isn't as common, but always a possibility. The craziness is declared on cardboard signage, sometimes with added smiley face art, all over the cart.
But if you are spacing out while walking by, Levent (who declined to give his last name) will find a way to make eye contact and inform you. One minute you're rocking out to the iPod, the next minute you're the owner of three bananas. He might have been a car salesman in another lifetime.
Levent and his business partners (about four cousins and friends, also from Turkey) keep produce prices low for FIT students, residents in the housing complexes across the street, and the cabbies driving up Eighth Avenue at all hours. With Serious Eats world headquarters just around the corner, we've been seeing a lot of Levent this year (the fruit cart didn't exist last summer), who doesn't seem to sleep. Ever.
"I mix coffee and Coke to stay awake." It's a little scary to think about how much caffeine is surging through Levent's veins, but that's the life of a 24-hour fruit vendor. He's typically on the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift, but sometimes he'll go the straight 24 hours, especially if he has to fill in for one of his buddies at their sister cart on 26th Street and 7th Avenue. One avenue makes a big difference. "Richer clientele over there."
But Levent seems to be doing just fine on Eighth Avenue. On a good day, he won't even sit down, stopping only to skim through his iPhone and take a bathroom break at Brown Cup, the facing coffee shop. On a pedestrian-heavy Thursday last week, Levent leaned in, pretty excited, to tell me he made $2,000 already that day.
Levent is actually part of a produce-vending dynasty—he is a third-generation fruit-hawker, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father in Turkey. They were in the business for 40 years and 30 years, respectively. Watching these two men, Levent learned that "quality is priceless, not expensive," which is one of his favorite sayings (right after "Crazy berry day!"). He made me recite this business mantra as I rounded the corner last week, double-checking that I didn't forget.
When asked about the difference between New York fruit-vending and Turkish fruit-vending, Levent shrugged. Pricing is different of course. "Two pounds of bananas over there cost around $5, and here it's like $1.50." The bananas, and the rest of the produce, are delivered here around 3 a.m. every morning from Hunts Point Terminal Produce Co-operative Market in the Bronx. Cherries and berries need refilling first—they sell the fastest. And when the produce arrives, Levent has a system for the layout. Strawberries go in front; pears are stacked behind. "It's better for sales," he said.
So why did Levent travel 5,000 miles to do something he could have done, as part of the family business, at home in Turkey? He first came to New York to study business management at NYU, with no thought of becoming a street vendor. He's still taking classes (though he's off now for summer) and plans to graduate in 2010. He'll probably go back to Turkey eventually, but in the meantime, the fast-paced fruit-vending world is keeping him busy.
I've never actually seen him eat real food—just grapes and bananas from the stand. Wait, isn't eating your profits a business faux-pas? Apparently not for Levent. He needs those grapes, and that potentially lethal caffeine potion, to keep moving.
24-Hour Fruit Carts
27th Street and Eighth Avenue
26th Street and Seventh Avenue
Open April to October