Somewhere between the wafting scents of pretzels and hot dogs, there’s a small food cart in New York City (designed by the owner itself) that’s reminiscent of a familiar face, in a crowd of strangers. And that’s exactly what Thiru Kumar, conceptualiser, ‘executive chef’ and sole owner of NY Dosa, a vegan South Indian food cart, has become in the 14 years since he started.
Having won the green card jackpot as far back as 1995, the Sri Lankan native didn’t think twice before bidding goodbye to his career as a dive instructor, or his home land, before packing up his wife Rajini and his 4-year-old daughter at the time, Sajini, to move to New York and give his food cart dream a shot. In fact, he told Mashable that it was a trip to Bangkok that opened up the possibility of such a career and he knew that this is what he wanted to do one day. He inquired with the woman running a food cart there about whether he could cook his own food, she allowed it and ever since, destiny’s been paving its way one crunchy, vegetable-laden uttapam at a time.
As someone who had spent his youth cave diving in jungles, uncovering previously unexplored-by-humans dive spots, and racing motorcycles on makeshift tracks, none of the challenges that came with the vendor dream were enough to put him off. He saved up for years as a gas attendant, managing his friend’s restaurants (The Dosa Hutt) and other odd jobs, finally amassing the $27,000 needed to acquire a special permit that allowed him to vend specifically in Washington Square Park, which was the only place at the time with any vegan restaurants. Even after he pulled this off, people around him were endlessly wary though. Largely because the notion of Indian food was a difficult one at the time, a messy option, and not exactly what you’d want to grab on the street for a quick lunch. But between the piping hot samosas, deliciously crunchy and oily; the freshly griddled dosas, served with ginger chutney and ‘lentil soup’ or the hands down favourite — a snack box filled with minced roti and curry, all priced at an easy $6, it wasn’t long before Kumar’s food cart was a legend in the making.
The ‘Udupi-on-wheels’ became a quick favourite amidst the oh-so-vegan yoga/celebrity crew in the area during its initial years, but post winning the 2005 Vendy Awards, Kumar’s modest cart reached dizzying new heights of success. Now, on any given day except Sundays, you can find a hoard of swarming loyals and newly informed customers, between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. chowing down on whatever goodies Kumar can serve up fastest and freshest. From Russian immigrants to a ‘vegan raastaman’ to Jaffna locals from his own hometown and even village, some of his regulars date back to as many as six to seven years, and they all swear by him completely.
And if these comments on NY Dosa’s Yelp Page speak volumes about anything, it’s the fact that his personality is as important as the food.
Of course, Indianised food carts are hardly an anomaly in this part of the world. Scores of Halal guys have enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, and two other dosa carts have tried and failed during Kumar’s years on the streets but his first-mover’s advantage seems to have spilled over for a better part of the decade, making his culinary legacy something of a city relic.
For all intents and purposes, this makes Kumar a bonafide proprietor of ‘The American Dream,’ but perhaps the real secret of his success lies in his definition of the same. “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.”
Between that philosophy and a really good dosa, nobody else really stood a chance anyway.