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Where Do NYC's Street Cart Donuts Come From?
I enjoyed a fun little adventure finding out...and free donuts!
Each of NYC’s hundreds of sidewalk coffee carts looks a little different. There’s the old-school cart with a stripped-down menu of pastries and coffee, and the newfangled variety featuring fluorescent food photos and exotic fare like oatmeal. Many are manned by a single, grey-haired proprietor, others by ladies in headscarves. But one factor remains constant—the donuts.
Whether it’s Brooklyn or the Bronx, Midtown or Wall Street, you’ll see the same donuts—sugary, glazed monsters of astonishing heft, six inches in diameter, stacked in neat rows on metal shelves behind the cart’s wall of cloudy glass. I’ve always wondered about these donuts, and I’m not alone. A CAFÉ ANNE reader recently wrote to ask, “Where do they come from and why do they exist?” I even found a NYC subreddit thread with folks asking the same question.
I’ve been making half-hearted efforts to investigate for about a month. One coffee cart guy gave me the email address for his donut supplier, but my note got no reply. A Google search unearthed some promising leads in Queens, but no one answered the phone. Finally, last week, I had what seemed like an auspicious conversation with Ahman Khalifa, who runs a breakfast cart in Downtown Brooklyn.
Mr. Khalifa used to run his own restaurant—first a Manhattan hotel coffee shop, then a Brooklyn Heights bagel joint, but had trouble making the rent. He solved the real estate problem when he bought his coffee cart in 1992. But because the city issues just 3,000 food cart permits and no longer accepts applications, most cart operators must rent a permit on the black market, he told me. The going rate is about $6,000 a year—roughly half what it was before Covid gutted the street cart business.
Every morning before dawn, he drives from his home in Bay Ridge to a garage near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he stores his cart overnight. He loads the steel wagon with breakfast supplies, hitches it to his truck and drives to Downtown Brooklyn where he sells egg sandwiches, bagels, coffee, tea and gigantic donuts from 5 am ‘til noon.
“It’s hard. If I had a choice I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
I asked what he’d like to do instead.
“Now it’s too late!” he laughed. “You know what I’m saying? You’ve been in the business too many years, you want to stick with it. You’re on your own, also. It’s your own business, no one will push you around. Nobody tells you what to do.”
“I’d love to retire but I don’t know when,” he added. “I told my friend, ‘We’re going to drop dead here I think!’”
Still, he seems to have a good time with his customers, many of whom are regulars. The most popular order, he said, is an egg and cheese sandwich with coffee—$4.50. And the top-selling donut is his favorite, the $1.25 glazed.
“The apple-cinnamon, not too many like,” he said. “Whole wheat also. Some people like that, but most people don’t. When you go for the donut, you go for the donut!”
So where do street cart donuts come from?
“Mac Donut is the biggest one,” he said of the city’s donut wholesalers. “That’s where I order from. It’s famous! It’s a big bakery. For the whole Tri-State area—not just New York.”
Excited, I pedaled home and jumped online. And was immediately crushed. Mac Donut it seemed, had recently closed. The building is for sale on Loopnet.
I had one more lead. That afternoon, I biked over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, hoping to find the food cart depot where Mr. Khalifa told me the city’s wholesalers deliver their baked goods to the coffee cart guys.
I found the depot—a dank garage between two auto repair shops—filled with dozens of food carts. It was oddly disconcerting to see the carts standing empty and unmanned.
Before long, a food vendor drove in to drop his cart at the garage. As he unhitched the cart from his truck, Gabriel Sad, who is from Egypt and has been operating in Manhattan since 1999, confirmed that Mac Doughnut is history. “They go out of business since the pandemic. That was a very beautiful doughnut.” he said mournfully. “The best donut.”
Where does he get his donuts now?
To my delight, he rummaged in his cart and produced a packing slip.
Most coffee cart operators order their donuts from Nice and Fresh Inc. in Queens these days, he said. The wholesale bakery delivers his donut order to the garage every morning before 2 am.
His favorite donut, by the way, is the eclair, along with the cruller and the Boston cream: “But I stopped eating donuts because I got a little fat.”
The next day, I considered calling Nice and Fresh Inc. to see if I could talk to the owner, then thought better of it. Better to just show up and see what happens.
The factory, it turns out, is located near the Steinway stop on the R train in Long Island City. I passed a block of limestone tenements and a used car lot surrounded by razor wire before I found the right address. But there was no sign of a donut factory.
Still it seemed worth a closer look. I crossed the street and approached a man on a forklift. “Is there a donut bakery here?” I asked.
He nodded. That’s when I noticed the pallet on his forklift. It was loaded with cinnamon swirl donuts!
“I’m writing a story on where coffee cart donuts come from,” I said.
He nodded as if this happened every day. “You can go inside and talk to the guy there,” he said. “Ruben.”
Ruben Normatov was standing just inside the truck bay, smoking a Parliament. It was my lucky day—Mr. Normatov was the owner!
Mr. Normatov got right into it: “We’re a wholesale bakery, okay? We’ve been in business over thirty years. My father and my mother started the business, then me and my brothers continue running it. My older brother’s upstairs. We’ve been in business doing great product! Great product! Everybody’s happy about it!”
The whole family is from from Tajikistan, he said. “You know where that is? It’s next to Afghanistan. One of the Russian republics. The old ones. Stupid Russia!”
His parents got their start operating a sidewalk coffee cart. He ran his own cart as a young man near Madison Square Garden. “I’ve been in the business all my life,” he said. “I never graduated high school. I did to tenth grade and then didn’t see that it was for me. I was alright with the education. I speak 4-5 languages!”
The factory produces about 15,000 donuts on a typical day, which it delivers overnight to food cart depots all over the city. The garages, in turn, distribute the orders to the coffee carts.
The factory operates a second shift producing Danish, muffins and other pastries. “53 varieties!” said Mr. Normatov. “But we specialize in donuts.”
Before the pandemic he was doing double the business, he said. But now that everyone is working remotely, there’s far fewer office workers gobbling coffee and pastries. He’s been happy just to keep all 45 employees on the payroll.
“This business—there’s been so many people who have been competing, and they just die from heart attacks and serious health complications,” he said. “The business is very tough. You have so many employees, you have so many expenses. People think it’s gold over here. It’s not like that!”
The most popular donut is the glazed—his own favorite. And it’s very special. “Ours are very light,” he said. “Much less calories than most of the donuts. Because there is a process that we do with them. We actually don’t deep-fry them. They are floating on top of the oil. We have a donut line.”
Alas, he was not prepared to give me an impromptu factory tour. The bakery is being renovated, he said. I could come back in a month and see everything.
“You want me to give you something to take a look at? Just stay here for a moment,” he said.
He disappeared behind a plastic curtain and came back bearing a large cardboard box.
‘What is this?” I asked.
The box was very heavy.
“Can I just take one donut?” I asked.
I thanked him and asked if I could photograph the outside of his bakery. As I was snapping away, he came out and gave me the box again.
“I don’t want to take it back. I already gave it to you,” he said. “Call me! Call me! We’re re-doing the walls! Re-doing the floors! It’s not easy!”
I promised to return for a tour.
Feeling satisfied, I walked around the corner and sampled a donut. I’m not really a glazed donut fan, but I have to say, it was very delicious. I still have the sugar all over my tote bag, hoodie and cell phone to prove it.
I offered the rest of the donuts to some kids passing by, but they looked frightened. Then I spotted the Soft Bubbles Laundromat down the block. The owners were happy to take the donuts for their customers.
That’s all for now! I’m hoping to return for my factory tour before too long. If you have any questions for Mr. Normatov, please drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAFÉ ANNE is a NYC-focused Substack newsletter reported and written by Brooklyn-based journalist Anne Kadet. To receive new posts every Monday, sign up for a free subscription!