A Food Cart Creates Community

Halal Cart Offers Taste of Islamic Culture

HalalFoodTruck-3-DanLittle-20180420.jpg

By Faizan Hassan, Photos by Dan Little

In front of the Unitarian Church on North Pleasant Street in Amherst lies a hidden gem in plain sight: a gem worth six bucks and the potential to rock one’s world.

Elsayed Fathi, owner of the New York Halal Cart, came to the United States from Egypt in 1994 as a 19-year-old looking for work. “I wanted to live the American dream, so I came here I guess,” he says. “I worked in New York for somebody’s cart [and] that’s how I learned to cook.”

Nearly 20 years later, while visiting a friend at UMass, Fathi saw a new opportunity: Despite large numbers of Muslim students in the area, there was a lack of halal food (food sanctioned by Islamic law). In 2012, he left his cart in New York City to be run by his brother and set up shop in Amherst.

“Getting my town permit was hard,” he says. “Because, before me, there weren’t any food trucks in Amherst. I was the first one.”

Fathi cooks “American halal,” a complex melting pot of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and New York street food. “This is not really Egyptian street food,” says Fathi. “It’s a New York invention.”

Popularized in New York in the early ’90s, the first-ever “American halal” cart was founded when two Egyptian immigrants opened up a hot dog stand on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, and soon realized the potential for halal street food. They introduced meals with meat, pita, and rice, and hence gave birth to “the halal food culture” or “American halal.”

Halal means permissible in Arabic. Certain foods, like alcohol and pork, are not allowed under Islamic guidelines. Meats such as chicken, lamb, and beef are considered halal only when they are slaughtered under Islamic law.

For a meat to be considered halal it must be slaughtered humanely, according to Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a halal certifying agency. Further: “The name of God [Allah] is to be pronounced as a reminder that we do not have the right to take the animal’s life except by the permission of God to meet our need for food.”

HalalFoodTruck-2-DanLittle-20180420.jpg

Fathi’s menu consists of only a few items: chicken or lamb over rice or in a filled sandwich. Both are generously covered with a secret-ingredient white sauce.

“The white sauce is bomb,” says Tauqeer Hassan, a student at Holyoke Community College and a regular at the New York Halal Cart. “I’m studying business in college and honestly, there’s a lot to learn from Fathi. Most importantly, the great customer service he provides.”

Fathi operates from a three- by eight-foot cart complete with a grill, gyro machine, steam table, and a small generator to operate the lights when it gets dark. Customers gather around the cart, chat, and watch him cook. He takes orders via an earbud from those who call ahead, while cooking for and joking with those in line.

Though there are many restaurants to compete with in downtown Amherst, Fathi has the advantage of lower expenses, especially when it comes to rent. Lunch cart permits are only $125 annually.

“I don’t have to pay high rents when the university is closed,” he says. “I keep my costs down and choose not to come during winter break when weather is rough and business is low.”

Fathi’s success isn’t just smart economics and good food. His cart, though small, has created a sense of community as a popular hangout spot for the UMass Muslim Student Association (MSA).

Most Fridays after prayer, MSA members gather at Fathi’s cart and celebrate the end of the week.

“We come in groups, socialize, and enjoy the delicious food,” says Zara Mehmood, MSA president.

“The food is delicious. It’s the best value, and he’s a very fun and nice guy,” says Talha Khan, a sophomore at UMass. “My family is from Pakistan, and I grew up eating biryani, which is a very special dish, since I am not close to home. This is the closest thing to biryani that I can find.”

A version of this story was originally published in Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic.

 

 

Sharing the Cookie Love

HotOvenCookies-3-DanLittle-20180406.jpg

Sheila Coon of Hot Oven Cookies

By Allison Litera, Photos by Dan Little

Sheila Coon, a mother of seven and grandmother of 10, is equal parts sweetness and strength. She is all about “sharing the cookie love” and appreciates the journey she’s taken to get to where she is today.

The self-proclaimed “cookie nerd” started Hot Oven Cookies in 2016. Originally a cookie delivery business, it has morphed into a mobile cookie cart and a flagship store opening on Main Street in Downtown Springfield this summer.

“Our mission is about more than just insanely delicious cookies,” she says. “It’s also about restored faith and hope, renewed significance and worth, and freedom through the flexibility of business ownership!”

Coon was married for 21 years before she got divorced. After the divorce, she needed a flexible job that would pay the bills and feed the kids.

“I was an average Joe,” she says. “I didn’t have the assets like other professional bakers. With over a decade of experience in the culinary industry and a college degree, I surprisingly couldn’t find anything that fit the bill.”

Coon had worked primarily as a cook and caterer, but she also loved baking. She decided to create her own job opportunity and start a bakery franchise. She drew inspiration from her family.

“When my mom divorced my dad, she started her own warm cookie business,” Coon says. “She influenced me by the way she was able to sustain our family with only fresh baked goods.”

Food was at the center of many of Coon’s large Puerto Rican family gatherings. “Baking cookies made sense,” she says, “especially with so many kids around.”

But Coon wanted her business mission to go beyond baking cookies.

HotOvenCookies-1-DanLittle-20180406.jpg

“[Hot Oven Cookies] is a mobile bakery franchise that seeks to empower women and veterans toward attainable and sustainable self-employment through sales of fresh gourmet cookies through our cookie carts and kiosks,” says Coon, who has several veterans in her family, including her husband. She hopes to add several more cookie carts into rotation within the coming months, and already has a few people interested in becoming franchisees.

Those bakers will have their hands full: Hot Oven Cookies has nearly 100 flavors in rotation throughout the year. Coon uses five bases to create varieties like Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, Pecan Chip, Oreo Butterfinger Chip, Guava Cheesecake, and French Toast Bacon Snickerdoodles. The inspiration came from her home kitchen.

“With seven children, not one wanted the same cookie flavor,” she laughs. “I kept a book and wrote down all their flavor requests. It blossomed from there. Some of my favorites are Nutella Truffle Chip, Ice Cream Sundae, and Oatmeal Blueberry Supreme.”

Coon does her best to utilize local ingredients where she can and is always on the lookout for new community partnerships. “We use local milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley. We also make our own jams and jellies to use in certain cookie flavors.”

But there’s more to a delicious cookie than the flavor.

“For me, it’s not just about buying a cookie. It’s about the experience my customers have,” Coon says. “Seeing the mint green food truck from afar, walking up and reading the menu, catching a whiff of the cookies baking inside the truck.”

If the cookies don’t win you over, she certainly will. Coon’s charisma, huge smile, and motherly charm elevate comfort food to an even more comforting experience. Her cookies are warm, but her personality is warmer.

“When someone bites into a delicious cookie, their whole expression changes,” she says. “They become visually more relaxed and a smile is brought to their face. That is one of the biggest rewards of my business.”

 

Find Hot Oven Cookies at the Holyoke and South Hadley farmers markets and local events this summer.
hotovencookies.com