NEW YORK, New York — On a hot Friday afternoon, a herd of customers flank both sides of the food cart, waiting on their South Indian fare. The phone rings loudly with takeout orders. Yet New York food vendor Thiru Kumar calmly shuffles between tasks, giving everyone due attention.
Better known as the Dosa Man, Kumar opened his tiny world-renowned cart, NY Dosas (a dosa is a South Indian crepe), in 2001. Soon he amassed a cult following; local and international patrons visit year-round to buy his inexpensive and flavorful street eats. His accolades are many: Listed in 42 countries’ guidebooks, his was the first vegan dosa cart in the world. He has fan clubs in California and Japan.
Today he serves crunchy, oily samosas stuffed with vegetables and potatoes. Hungry patrons chat while waiting in a long line; kids play in the park as cars zoom by, horns and sirens blaring. The frenzied pace is typical at the cart’s southwest corner location of Washington Square Park, where Kumar has parked since opening.
He talks of his life over the din of the city:
He’s from Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
Little potato and one samosa, boss?
He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother.
His first experiences cooking were for their family of six brothers and one sister — where he sometimes stole second helpings for himself, he laughs.
Samosa dosa, OK.
He steals a second to himself, and laughs.
Written up first by New York magazine in 2002, NY Dosas is covered with clips from newspapers around the world. Here is one from China, he says — and one from France, Japan and London. Kumar’s cart also displays the coveted Vendy Cup certificate, which he won in 2007 after years of being voted into the vending community’s yearly street food competition.
He usually works Monday through Saturday, from 12 to 3 p.m. — sometimes earlier, sometimes later, depending on the day. He simply stays until he runs out of food.
Kumar’s story is that of the American dream: An immigrant moves to New York City and makes it big with an idea. But Kumar’s story is also very much his own, that of a man who wanted to do things differently, a man ready to charge at even the biggest challenges.
Kumar spent his youth in Sri Lanka, cave diving in jungles and racing motorcycles on a makeshift track. As a diving instructor, he amassed a group of eager pupils; together, they explored far-flung locations previously undiscovered by humans.
Far from civilization (“No lifeguard, nothing… only animals rescue me” he says), he’d wake up early in the morning to cut vegetables and cook them with noodles, rice and fish on stones over a wood fire, smoke rising through the rich foliage of the jungle.
Later, as a travel agent at his own in company in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, Kumar took a business trip to Bangkok. He stopped by a particular food truck and inquired whether he could cook his own food. She allowed it, and he paid. He went back every subsequent trip to do the same.
“I thought, ‘This what I’m going to do one day,’” he remembers.
In 1990, at age 18, Kumar married his wife, Rajini, in a “love marriage,” atypical at the time. After fathering their now 4-year-old daughter, Sajini, Kumar won the green card lottery in 1995. So like many immigrants in search of better opportunities, Kumar and his family immigrated to New York City.
The family moved to Flushing, Queens, where some of New York’s small Sri Lankan community mixed with the bigger South Indian community. (“Still live there,” he says. “11355 — never changed the zip code.”) The two cultures are similar, especially when it comes to Kumar’s ethnic group, which speaks Tamil as its mother tongue and exists in populations from Sri Lanka to India to Malaysia to Mauritius. His own family is spread out from France to England to Canada.
At first, Kumar took whatever job he could get, his wife dedicated to the upkeep of the house and raising Sajini. He worked in construction; in a gas station; managing his friend’s restaurant, the Dosa Hutt, all the while inquiring about what it would take to start his own food cart. Sri Lanka hadn’t had a street food scene like Thailand. But New York, with its iconic hot dog and roasted peanut stands, did.
To open a food cart in the city takes two steps, explains Street Vendor Project’s staff attorney Matt Shapiro. As a nonprofit, SVP helps vendors with daily difficulties like ticketing, and builds a community that can make citywide change on their behalf. The first step is the license, administered by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and consisting of food safety classes and various certificates. Second, vendors require a permit, which includes applications, inspections and other steps. With these two components in hand, one can open a food cart.
But complications, of course, still arise. Only 4,000 permits can be doled out throughout the city at any given time. One can be stuck on the waiting list for 20 years, says Shapiro, so vendors often rent the permits for thousands of dollars or work for someone else.
After looking into exactly what was needed to open a cart, Kumar acquired the food vending license after three and a half years. Instead of trying to get a regular permit, though, he opted for a special one that allows him to vend specifically in Washington Square Park (the only place at the time with vegan restaurants, he says).
The permit would cost $27,000.
Kumar saved up for several years, designed his very own cart (akin to New York’s classic silver hot dog stands), and began telling family and friends that his new venture was a South Indian vegan food cart.
Those around him were skeptical.
“At that time, no one really sold anything other than hot dogs and pretzels on street carts,” says Kumar’s daughter Sajini, now 24. “It was unheard of to have Indian food, which is difficult to eat.”
But Kumar was adamant about his new idea.
At the time, he was transitioning from eating everything to a fully vegan diet, surrounded by friends with similar lifestyles. So he decided the cuisine he grew up with and loved would be what he served to customers: thin, addictive dosas; thick pancakes with vegetables, called uthappam; rich and doughy potato-filled appetizers, such as samosas and vegetable roti, cooked in a mixture of common Indian spices. He created some recipes based on what he knew; others he would invent.
He opened in December 2001. At the beginning, a “lot of yoga people, lot of celebrities” came to NY Dosas, he says. When the media got wind of his venture and SVP launched its now-famed Vendy Awards in 2005, though, business really picked up.
The Vendys are an annual picnic-style celebration, a fundraising effort and a way to highlight small business owners. Throughout the year, street food lovers nominate their favorite vendors, and a panel of celebrity judges votes on their favorites. Kumar was one of the Vendys’ first participants.
On this hot Friday afternoon, NY Dosas features fliers for the event’s 10-year anniversary: “Support NY Dosas at the Master’s Cup.” Past winners can’t compete for the Vendy Cup itself, but as this is an anniversary year, the Master’s Cup highlights winners past.
Saturday of the event, Kumar’s cart stands out among the rest, modest in its old-school style next to sleek, intimidating, brightly colored food trucks. As usual, the NY Dosas line never abets; people wait to try his signature Special Pondicherry, the dosa he invented and which won him 2007’s cup.
Vendors walk around the family-style event with samples — falafel, donuts, ice cream, German soul food, Bolivian lamb, French Canadian-inspired meals, pan-Asian. The judges sit in their own tent by the entrance, nodding to each other and taking notes in between bites from their paper plates.
Mexican food cart Calexico would win the Master’s Cup that day, and a different vegan food cart, Cinnamon Snail, the Vendy Cup.
Days start early for the Dosa Man, getting up at 4:45 or 5:45 a.m., depending on his errands. He meets up with his two or three morning helpers at the half-kitchen he rents from a Greek restaurant in Queens. He cooks for several hours before sitting down for breakfast.
This particular Monday morning, Kumar gets to his spot in the park around 11:15 as usual, pulling NY Dosas up a small hill and wedging in the bricks that hold the cart in place. A man walking by with his bicycle says, “What’s up, Dos?” and holds the cart as Kumar sets it up. “Thanks man,” says Kumar, and the man keeps walking.
He expands the green and white umbrella above the cart, which reads “Keep Parks Clean” (part of the permit’s regulations), turns on the grill and displays his numerous newspaper and magazine clips.
Within minutes, customers start inquiring when they can order.
Then he’s serving, inviting onlookers to watch him make the dosas, making sure orders are exactly right. Volunteers take down phone orders, count money and talk to customers. He’s not sure how many volunteers are in his network in total; 21 are registered, while others come sporadically to help with various aspects of the business.
Stanley Lee is one. A former NYU grad student focusing on international human rights, Lee first shouted out to Kumar from line in 2007, asking if he’d like some help, and has been volunteering ever since. Like Kumar, Lee’s parents immigrated to New York City, his father a political refugee from China’s Cultural Revolution.
When the food runs out at around 4 p.m., Kumar closes up shop, brings the cart back to its garage around the corner and drives back to his kitchen, where his team will help cut vegetables for the next day. He gets home around 9 or 10 p.m.
But Kumar has the boundless energy it all requires.
“He never sits still,” says daughter Sajini. “If I saw my dad sitting for hours in front of the TV I’d be like, ‘OK, what’s wrong.’”
At the stand that Monday morning, Kumar, gray-eyed and moustached, dons his graffiti-font “Thiru the Dosa Man” T-shirt. He also wears a baseball cap (part of the regulations) and a necklace of thick, brown rudraksha beads, a symbol of his devout Hinduism.
He tells stories about his customers as they order. This one is an NYU professor; his girlfriend comes here, too. This woman is from his hometown of Jaffna (“His dosas are as authentic as the ones we make at home,” she says). At one point, a man calls in an order. “Ya mon,” answers Kumar, “12:00 is ready … OK. One love,” he laughs and hangs up. “Rastafarian vegetarian. He can only have food here.”
Meanwhile, benches around the stand fill up with people devouring his lunches.
A longtime fan arrives to place her order. WNYC senior editor Andrea Bernstein comes back both for the dosas and the special attention. “It’s nice to get a little love with your lunch,” she says.
Food carts were not quite as popular in the NYU area when Kumar first started. Now, tens flank the streets of the school by night, which Kumar attributes to his popularity.
Kumar explains that others have, in fact, tried to emulate his dosa stand success. A man from a halal food truck tried to start a dosa cart on West 4th Street but closed within three months. A dosa cart has opened in Morningside Heights, as well.
“Me, no, I never scared of nothing,” Kumar says. “From small days, I don’t know, I never scared of nothing.”
Moreover, entrepreneurs are translating food cart success into bigger business ventures. A woman who made arepas in Jackson Heights recently opened her own restaurant. A few halal guys who had a stand on 53rd Street launched a brick and mortar location, too.
But what does success really mean to Kumar?
“Success mean as long as you satisfied what you’re doing, and then you pay all the bills, stay out of trouble — that’s enough success,” he says. “As long as you happy and you [make] surrounding people also happy, then you’re successful.”
So would he say that he’s successful?
“Of course, yeah!”