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Prices have food carts spinning their wheels

You'd think the recession would fall more heavily on Center City's swank steak houses than on its hot-dog vendors - that more people than ever would be dining "a la cart" to save a buck.

You'd think the recession would fall more heavily on Center City's swank steak houses than on its hot-dog vendors - that more people than ever would be dining "a la cart" to save a buck.

But food-cart operators around the city say that they are struggling to make ends meet.

They're caught in a situation where they're facing higher food prices, lower turnout and an inability to raise prices for fear of losing even more business, they say.

"Customers are [coming] sometimes more, or sometimes less," Aurang Zeb Khan, who runs Zeb's Lunch, at 7th and Market streets, said last week as he slid grilled chicken onto his griddle, then shredded it.

"But because of the ingredients, even if people are [coming] the same, our profits are lower."

Khan, 19, has served standard lunch fare - hot dogs, pretzels, egg sandwiches and the like, plus a mean grilled-chicken pita - from his cart for two years, and he said he's now in a bind.

"If you raise prices too much, you lose a lot of business because people don't come," he said.

Khan lives in South Philadelphia with his parents, his wife, Salma, and his daughter, Lubaba, and works at Zeb's with his brother during the week. On the weekend, he works at his father's truck, Nick's Lunch, at 19th and Walnut Streets.

"The job is nice if you have your own [cart]," he said. "Besides having to wake up early, the work is light - it's not too heavy."

But it has gotten a little leaner. Khan, who came here from Pakistan with his parents in the late '90s, said that over the last two years, some of his food costs have skyrocketed.

"The hot dogs we used to buy for $10 are now $27-$30," he said.

Coffee and other supplies have doubled, he said.

"I don't know where it's going to end," he said. But he can't raise his prices much, he said, for fear of scaring off his customers.

Ali Khan, 29 (unrelated to Zeb), works at a cart by 19th and Vine streets.

"Before, business was good," he said. "But now, at the end of every month, my boss says he loses money."

Parking meters are a big problem, he says, now that parking rates have doubled.

"Before, every person would spend $7 to $8 dollars," he said. "Now, they're just buying pretzels and hot dogs. And the price of everything is up."

Ingredient prices have hit hard, he says. Eggs that used to cost him $20 a case are going for about double, he said.

Jim Kohler, Director of Marketing for Jetro Holdings Inc., which supplies many food-cart owners around the city, said that the costs of many food-cart staples, such as produce and processed meats, first jumped about two years ago.

"The first big spike on commodity prices happened with the shortage of fuel," he said, adding that a push to grow corn for ethanol rather than for human consumption or animal feed caused prices for several goods to increase. Transportation and processing costs also jumped.

Lani Tdin, 52, of South Philadelphia, came to the U.S. from Indonesia.

"I came to visit my brother and sister" and stayed, she said as she scooped yellow rice onto tortillas at "El Rosa Cucina Mexicana," a cart near 33rd and Locust streets.

Tdin, dressed in a red plaid apron dotted with teddy bears, said that her customers are mostly students and staff of the University of Pennsylvania.

She's seen chicken costs rise 40 percent, and avocados and tomatoes are up a third or more.

Ali Baba, 53, owns a truck outside of Penn's gym, at 37th Street near Sansom.

"A lot of customers eat at home, or make [bagged lunches]," he said. "Before, they ate in the street [from food carts]. But they want to save money.

"Too many people have told me they lost their job," said Baba, who is known among Penn students and staff for his Middle Eastern fare.

And now with classes over, he's under more stress now than previous summers.

That's just like Leo Saavedra, who opened Tacos Don Memo's, near 38th and Chestnut streets, three years ago.

"I'll try to survive and hope it picks up in September," said Saavedra, as he prepared another order of tacos and burritos.

Saavedra, 29, was born in Mexico, grew up in New York City and came to the Philadelphia area 10 years ago. Business was good enough at the truck that he soon opened a restaurant near the 69th Street Terminal, in Upper Darby.

His truck is still busy, he said, but business has slowed since last year. Where he used to make 120 orders a day, he's filling 70, he said. He attributes some of the drop to students leaving for summer, but that doesn't account for everything.

"The ingredients I use are expensive, and I can't raise my prices," he said, joking that he'd already heard that his was one of the more expensive food carts on campus.

Despite tough times, cart operators such as Saavedra, Baba and Zeb Kahn will keep grilling cheesesteaks and slinging hot dogs.

"People have to eat, you know," Khan said. *