What Nagib Arabi tells his friends in Egypt:
"Most of them want to come here, but they don't know life here. I tell them what it's like. It's not what you think. They think when they leave the airport there's dollars everywhere -- they just put them in a bag. I tell them no."
Nagib Arabi has heard about the booming economy, but he doesn't see it, not from his little piece of real estate at the corner of 18th and K streets downtown.
Arabi has operated his vending stand -- laden with snacks, stacked with candy, surrounded by coolers and topped by boxes -- on this same spot for 15 years. When he came to America from Egypt in 1981, it was his dream to start his own business. He worked a few other jobs first, and then bought the vending stand as a step to having his own grocery store someday.
Business was good, at first. He could make $100 a day, sometimes a bit more in nice summer weather or on the occasional Friday, payday. It was worth the backbreaking work, hauling the cart and stocking it, and the 14-hour days.
But things have changed. Arabi is making half what he used to, if that. Last year he had to fly to Egypt to see his dying mother, and then fly back again for her funeral. He used up most of his savings, and in the eight months he worked he made about $11,000, he says. He is 43. He is tired.
Now, Arabi wants to sell his stand and leave the vending business. His idea of starting a store? He waves his hand dismissively. With a gesture, it's clear he's abandoned that goal. He'll try to take a computer class. Or maybe he'll go work for someone else, though with his slightly broken English and only part of a college education, he worries he won't find a job.
The lunch rush is almost over, and Arabi hands a well-dressed customer two hot dogs with chili and onions, a bag of chips, a Coke. It's a special -- $2.75. The customer gives him three dollars, and waits for a quarter back. "Thank you," Arabi says.
It is cold for October, and raining. "Life is nothing for me -- work hard, no family, nothing. This takes all my time."
The way Arabi sees it, he would have been just as well off staying in Egypt. He left college and came here when his father died on a pilgrimage to Mecca and the family could no longer pay for his education. Like all his friends, he thought America had more opportunity than Egypt.
Arabi tried several jobs. He worked in a restaurant, at a gas station and at DAR Constitution Hall. As a foreigner, he thought his heavy accent hurt him in the workplace, but if he worked for himself it wouldn't be an issue. He had other friends from Egypt in the vending business, so he joined them.
Arabi thought he was on his way to the American Dream and he worked hard to make his stand successful. He sells everything a sweet tooth or snack craving could want. The shelves are piled so high, it's hard to even see Arabi inside the cart.
"If somebody says another stand has something, the next day, I have too," he says. Chic-o-Stix, Zero bars, roasted peanuts, salted and unsalted. Everything.
And that worked well for years.
But about five years ago, things began to change. Arabi can't quite put his finger on what happened, but 1994 is the year he says people stopped spending so much. Sales fell. Everybody started waiting to get their quarters back. Vendors started going out of business.
A few things have also happened that hurt Arabi's business in particular. The building next to his stand used to have 2,000 IBM employees, but they moved to Virginia a few years ago.
"Two thousand customers gone -- oh my God, you don't know," he says, shaking his head. New people moved into the building, but mostly foreigners who work for the World Bank, and many of them bring their lunch with them, he says. "The people from IBM, they eat popcorn, hot dog. They eat outside. They spend money. Two thousand customers!"
In 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest said popcorn popped in coconut oil is hugely fattening, Arabi's popcorn sales crashed almost overnight. He still makes it, and he still uses peanut oil as he always did, but he sells almost nothing. "I used to sell 100 boxes a day. Now, nothing. Maybe three or four," he says.
Then, in 1995, the city imposed a $1,500 annual fee on street vendors, and more went out of business. A study done by the Control Board in 1996 showed that the number of vendors in the city shrank from 2,700 in the late 1980s to 1,219 in 1996. But Arabi hung on. The final blow came about a year ago, when a Wendy's opened up down the street. Arabi figures that's why he doesn't sell hot dogs the way he used to.
But still, he slogs on.
"Hi sweetie, how are you today?" a woman says to Arabi as she walks up to the window.
"My regular customer," he says of her, smiling.
"He's the best," the woman says. "He's always so nice."
"Thank you, thank you," he says.
All day long, Arabi serves the regulars, many without even asking what they want. He is proud he knows them so well. They are glad he is there. You can almost see why he stays.
But profits are dwindling. Alan Greenspan may be worried about consumer price inflation, but Arabi has a problem on the other end.
For 15 years, he has charged a dollar for a hot dog. For 15 years, his pretzels have gone for 50 cents. But Arabi's costs have not been so constant. "When I go to the store to buy it, the price keeps going up," he says. "A big bag of hot dogs used to be $7. Now $13. Raise prices? I can't."
So this is where he is: After selling 24 bags of pretzels, he's made $3.
Arabi tried to raise his prices, but people complained, and even walked away, he says. And if the vendor down the street doesn't raise his prices, Arabi can't either. "What am I going to do? I have competition."
If he were a bigger business, Arabi would be the perfect target for a cost-benefit analysis. A business school study would certainly tell him to cut back on inventory. He carries too many things that don't sell well. Such a study would likely tell him to can the popcorn, to charge for hot dog toppings and to stop giving free matches to everyone who asks.
But Arabi would dismiss this advice. He has to carry what the customer wants, he says over and over. And while it is an admirable goal, it has locked him into a schedule that has left him burned out and underpaid. To find everything he needs to stock his cart the way he wants, he is constantly running.
Arabi rises at 4:30 a.m. He leaves the Alexandria apartment he shares with two roommates at about 5:30. Often he stops first at United Wholesale in Northeast Washington, the only place he can get individually wrapped slices of cake. Then he goes to 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW to get his stand from the vendor garage. The garage also sells him -- and other street vendors -- most of what he needs, such as hot dogs, ice and gum. In exchange for buying supplies there, he gets free rent for his stand.
By 7 a.m. he is at the corner of 18th and K setting up. He pays a friend $15 to help him haul his cart in the morning and the evening.
Arabi starts closing down at 6 p.m. and finishes by 7:30. He goes back to the garage to drop off his cart, and then every night rushes to Price Club in Pentagon City. There, he buys fresh muffins for the morning, and a few other things that he can't get elsewhere. Sometimes, he goes to BJ's Wholesale Club in Alexandria after that, when he needs to buy trail mix.
He gets home around 10, eats dinner, showers, wraps the muffins, fills plastic bags with peanuts and goes to bed at midnight.
"People think this job is easy," Arabi says. "It's not."
Can't he just skip Price Club? No, because muffins are profitable. He makes 50 cents on each one.
When he was younger, he could handle the schedule, he says. But now, he's tired. He wants out.
Arabi has asked around to try to sell his cart, and he keeps lowering his price. If he could get $7,000 or $8,000 he would sell it, he says. He's had one offer for $4,000.
Winter is coming, and Arabi hopes it will be his last as a vender. People stay inside when it's cold, so business is bad. "In March, hopefully, I'm not renewing license," he says. He has a friend who will teach him computers on the weekends. He is ready.
"This is my dream," he says, "to get out."
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Arabi buys most of the food for his stand from D.C. Food, which also operates several garages for vending stands. But there are some things D.C. Food doesn't sell that Arabi says his customers want.
For those things, he makes special trips to other stores and wholesalers. Here is a sampling of what he buys where, what he pays, and what he makes in profit.
Pays: 15 cents
Sells: 25 cents
Profit: 10 cents
Pays: $9 for 24
Sells: 50 cents
Profit: 12 cents
Price Club (Every night)
Can of Arizona Iced Tea
Pays: $13.99 for 24
Profit: 42 cents
BJ's Wholesale Club (Two or three times a week)
California Naturals Trail Mix
Pays: $7.99 for 20
Sells: 50 cents
Profit: 10 cents