After months of uncertainty, one of the Upper East Side’s most popular street vendors, Tony Dragonas, settled a suit with the Health Department over violations that had threatened his license and livelihood, allowing him to continue operating his famed food cart on 62nd Street and Madison Avenue.
Once a deal was reached, Mr. Dragonas, his 19-year-old son, Dana, and a dozen of his regular customers who had trekked to the Financial District to testify on his behalf hurried uptown to the same spot he has occupied for 23 years to celebrate, just in time to serve the hungry hordes lined up every day during the lunchtime rush.
Over a year ago, one of Mr. Dragonas’ neighbors filed a complaint about excessive smoke from the cart, and the Health Department began making inspections about three times a month, he said. Between Nov. 29, 2006, and Oct. 31, 2007, Mr. Dragonas was cited for 19 health code violations, many of which stemmed from minor infractions like failing to wear a hat, vending too close to the crosswalk, or putting a cooler on the ground.
The $1,000 penalties—six of which were for excessive smoke—quickly started to pile up, jeopardizing the renewal of Mr. Dragonas’ license that had expired in February 2008. In May, the Health Department commissioner ordered him to attend a hearing to “show cause” why his permit and license should not be suspended, revoked or denied.
The Street Vendor Project advocates for its 700 members, many of whom get $1,000 tickets every day for things like putting their license in their pocket instead of around the neck, director Sean Basinkski said.
Dozens of members of the unofficial union and hundreds more who are independent have lost their licenses because they were unable to pay $10,00 to $15,000 of accumulated fines for “breaking the law,” regardless of how minor the violation. But few have prompted the same outpouring of support as Mr. Dragonas. Everyone from Icelandic tourists to former Browning students have signed the “Save Tony Petition.”
About 20 regular customers skipped work and were prepared to testify on his behalf at Thursday morning’s hearing, before the city offered him a settlement. A motley crew of Upper East Side workers and residents waited in anticipation on the sixth floor of the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, as the lawyers negotiated next door.
“What’s different about Tony is that he’s been there for 23 years so he has a loyal group of supporters,” Mr. Basinski said. “There are thousands of vendors in the city and Tony is in the top tenth of the top 1 percent of vendors. He’s won awards. He’s probably the most popular vendor in the city, and he’s got a powerful clientele. If he was up in the Bronx, the uproar probably wouldn’t be quite as noticeable.”
Michael Scheffler, a surprisingly populist Barneys salesman at the hearing, has eaten lunch from the cart for six years, getting the chicken platter with salad and rice for $6.
“The whole looking-out-for-people’s-health thing is just BS,” Mr. Scheffler said Thursday morning, ringing the line with quotation gestures. “I’ve eaten there a thousand times and never once gotten sick. This is just another case of the rich squashing out the little guy.
“Not only does he serve rich people and executives, but he serves all of us who commute to the Upper East Side to work for the people who live there.”
There are not many establishments patronized by rich and poor alike on the toniest strip of Madison Avenue, so it’s no surprise that rarely does a mention of “Tony” go by without a reference to the diversity of his clientele or the invaluable service he provides in an area with few affordable food options. The contrast between the patrons who line up at Mr. Dragonas’ cart every day and those at the typical UES stores and eateries is all the more stark since he shares the block with Hermes, Christofle, the Julius Caruso salon and the French bistro Amaranth.
A lot of the people who attended the hearing have become friendly with one another because of Mr. Dragonas, as it’s unlikely they would have struck up a relationship had they not been forced to wait on line for 20 minutes for his Mediterranean-style fare.
Beth Aretsky, a chef, Culinary Institute graduate, and the personal assistant to celebrity-chef Anthony Bourdain (known as “grill bitch” in his memoir Kitchen Confidential), brought along her 7-month-old daughter, Sydney, to the hearing. The cooing infant wearing a bib with a “Save Tony” sticker sat on Luca Luca security guard Raymond Jones’ lap while the deal was hammered out.
Ms. Aretsky lives on 62nd and Madison and has been buying lunch from Mr. Dragonas for 15 years. She recommends the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich and is “a big fan” of the cheeseburgers. When she worked at the now-defunct restaurant Sullivan’s, Ms. Aretsky would bring back burgers for the entire staff, including her boss, Mr. Bourdain, who reportedly loved them.
“As soon as [Sydney] has teeth she’s getting a burger,” Mr. Aretsky said. “I promised her.”
Mr. Dragonas is so popular in the neighborhood, she can’t figure out “who has a nut for him.
“I think some people may be upset because he doesn’t pay rent for prime real estate, but other than that, I don’t know,” she shrugged. “He’s not just a vendor, he’s a friend. Limo drivers and cabbies go to him, people from all walks of life.”
Mr. Jones agreed that none of the management at Luca Luca complained about the smoke. In fact, he gets lunch there six days a week, and often takes orders for the rest of the store’s staff.
“The smoke is great-smelling smoke. It’s burger smoke. It makes me salivate,” Ms. Aretsky chimed in.
A waiter at Amaranth said customers frequently complain, but the management has never contacted the Health Department. “People eating outside say, ‘What is all this smoke?’; ‘Why don’t you ask him to move?’” he said. “But it doesn’t affect business, so we never do anything.”
An elegant, white-haired older woman, Marilyn—known as “Bubbles” in the neighborhood—lives on 62nd between Fifth and Madison, next to Luca Luca, and her terrace overlooks the food cart.
Marilyn likes the chicken platter, “hold the rice.” “Someone recently turned me onto the tomato and mozzarella sandwich,” she said.
Another supporter agreed, but told her to try the prosciutto instead because it’s “the best.”
“I love him,” Marilyn said. “I cannot even imagine it without Tony. It would be a real hardship for the men in my building, and everyone. It’s the only affordable place in the neighborhood.”
“What about the $12 turkey sandwich at Viand,” someone joked, referring to the overpriced coffee shop around the block on Madison Avenue.
“I like Viand, too,” Marilyn said, “but Tony’s different. The other day this old woman stumbled in the street and who’s helping her? Tony. Forget the chicken and pita. He’s a mainstay.”
Even Mr. Dragonas’ competitors are hard-pressed to find fault with him. Theodore Milonas, a fellow Greek and a breakfast vendor camped outside Hermes, said he and Mr. Dragonas “are not friendly.”
“Most of the Greeks in this country fight each other,” he said.
He claims Mr. Dragonas “likes to play big” and tried to sell his coffee cart to a customer, claiming he was Mr. Milonas’ boss. He also doesn’t like Tony’s habit of giving free food to customers, because they expect him to follow s
“He gives free food to everyone—cops, doormen, people that work in the neighborhood,” Mr. Milonas complained. “I can’t do this because my girlfriend will kick me out.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Milonas said on Monday before the trial that he still feels sympathy for his fellow vendor. “Tony’s a nice guy, and he could lose everything.”
His regular customers say Mr. Dragonas is usually a gregarious, “charismatic” man, but the Monday morning before the trial, he was shy and answered questions reluctantly as four workers prepared the cart at 10:50. Almost every response was prefaced with the “I don’t want to make a big deal about this.”
“I haven’t slept in a month,” he said, nearly whispering. “After 25 years, people started complaining about excess smoke. I have so many problems right now I don’t know how to deal with it all.” He clutched a pack of cigarettes.
“I got two kids in school and my wife is sick. I’m really nervous if I can’t get my license back and work, I could lose my house and my car.”
Thankfully, he will get his license back in one month. At the settlement talks, Mr. Basinkski told supporters that the deal is “a real victory for Tony.”
The city initially planned on revoking his license and permit for two years. Under the settlement, however, Mr. Dragonas can maintain his permit for the cart, but only his staff will be able to cook for one month. He also has to enroll in a food protection course for the second time, correct violations, and pay fines worth around $10,000.
“That’s a lot of chicken,” someone shouted.
“Most vendors aren’t this lucky,” Mr. Basinkski said.
Mr. Dragonas stood next to Mr. Basinkski with a faint smile on his face and thanked people for coming, but remained mostly quiet.
After the settlement, everyone took the subway uptown to celebrate at the truck. A few people joined the crowd from the courtroom as they walked toward the cart and some neighbors clapped.
“I think we did good,” Mr. Dragonas said on the phone Thursday evening. “We won. I have to pay the fines and my license is suspended for a month, but I got my job back, so I’m happy. But I’m just exhausted. It was great to have all those people come out to support me. It felt really good that people took the day off work, and we even had wealthy people from the neighborhood.”