Few New Yorkers will be familiar with the name Thiru Kumar. But if they hear about the Dosa Man, many will visualize a smiling and hyperactive 50-year-old entrepreneur, originally from Sri Lanka, who beat the vegan boom in the city with the most varied gastronomic offer in the world. A dosa is a kind of crunchy flatbread or crepe made of rice and lentils that is very popular in his home country and in southern India. Under his expert hand, inside the cart that he has operated for the last 20 years, the dosa becomes a delicacy. Adding to the success is an affordable price tag of $10, a prime location in Washington Square Park, surrounded by New York University buildings, and the personal charm exuded by Kumar, who takes selfies with everyone who asks.
“I arrived in New York in 1994, but I didn’t leave my country because of the [government’s war against Tamil insurgents], I did it because I got a green card,” he explains, alluding to the prized residence card for foreigners. With no culinary knowledge other than his grandmother’s recipes, upon his arrival in the Big Apple he worked a thousand jobs, saved up money, asked for a loan and opened the business in 2002. “I wanted to have my own job. I had no experience in the kitchen, but I wanted to do something new, different. This occurred to me, I asked for the permits, and here I am,” he explains between orders.
Kumar’s business hours are random: customers are informed through an announcement posted on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. Interviewing him is not an easy task. “No, interview no. Ask me the questions while I work, I never stop, as you can see,” he says with a laugh, as he pours ladles of liquid batter on the griddle, then adds the vegetable filling. Served with a cup of lentil soup and a side of coconut chutney, the tray satisfies the hungriest patrons.
Dressed in camouflage pants, a baseball cap, and a double necklace, Kumar’s pace is frantic: after browning the dosa, he packs it with the garnish while simultaneously answering the phone (“Hi, NY Dosas here!”), charging the customers, taking a selfie with them, and all at lightning speed, which does not prevent the line in front of the food cart to get longer and longer.
Kumar, who has fan clubs in 45 countries, sprinkles the orders with words in Spanish: “I have many Spanish friends, from Madrid and Barcelona, who came to study and ate here, so I learned their language.”
The entrepreneur has pioneered many things: his was the first all-vegetarian food cart in the city. Today his business is listed in tourist guides around the world. Kumar avoids talking about Sri Lanka (“I am an American citizen”), but his face lights up when he hears his home country described as a paradise. “Yes, it is a beautiful, wonderful island,” he says. In his hectic workday, only one question remains unanswered, the reason for his success. But Kumar grins again, shrugs, and his gesture explains everything.
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