Philly side hustle will be on full display during papal visit

 Water vendor Naazir Allah  across from Independence Hall. (Aaron Moselle/NewsWorks)

Water vendor Naazir Allah across from Independence Hall. (Aaron Moselle/NewsWorks)

Nearly a million people are expected to crowd Philadelphia this week to welcome Pope Francis.

For the faithful, it’s an opportunity to get close to their spiritual leader.

For unlicensed vendors, it’s an opportunity to make a lot of extra cash.

Naazir Allah is among the hundreds who will likely try to pick up a few extra bucks while the Holy Father is here.

He’s been selling water and Gatorade in the city for the last 15 years. Merchandise too.

“Anything with the Liberty Bell on it,” said Allah during a recent break from vending near Independence Mall.

Right now, being a street entrepreneur is Allah’s job, his only source of income. And so, when he heard the pope was coming, there wasn’t much question what he’d do.

“I’m just going to stick to with the waters. Stick to the Gatorades and pretzels,” he said.

“As far as the pope paraphernalia, it’s up in the air. If I get the T-shirts, then I’ll try to sell them. But they just opened up the official pope store on Market, so I don’t know how that’s going to go with street vendors.”

But other street entrepreneurs aren’t worried about the competition from the official vendors. 

Counting on a big markup

On a Sunday afternoon, Askia is in his basement workshop.  Industrial machines for doing heat transfers and screen printing are sandwiched between a powder room and the garage.   As he plans to put Pope Francis’ face on T-shirts, flags and hats, he is testing out the design, making a few of each item to see how they look.  

Askia, who did not want his last name used, started planning as soon as he heard about the event.

“When I heard the pope was coming, I said, ‘Wow’!  I’m looking forward to this event.  I hope it will be a prosperous day for me.”  

Askia keeps his overhead low — for example, a pack of five plain, white T-shirts costs about $7 wholesale. If he makes a few thousand finished items and sells them for between $7 and $10 each, he estimates he could net between $10,000 and $30,000 during the two-day papal visit.

“If I can’t sell 4,500 [items] then I’m in the wrong business,” he said.

Like a general, Askia has a complex plan for getting the merchandise to the people.  He recruits friends to help sell the items, giving them a percentage of the profit.

Part of his strategy is to avoid Center City, its security fences and travel rules.

“We’ll get out there on Roosevelt Boulevard. They’re going to be coming in from everywhere. I don’t have to get that close. I can work on the outside.”

He hopes staying on the fringes will net him more cash and help him avoid hassles with Licenses and Inspections,  the city department in charge of making sure that every street vendor has registered his or her business with the city and paid for a vending license.  

A run in with an inspector could end the day early for any unlicensed sellers. 

“You always have to contend with that element,” Askia said. 

Vending Unit will be out in force

Ralph DiPietro is a deputy commissioner with L&I and the liaison between the World Meeting of Families and his department.  During the World Meeting of Families, a copy of the list of approved vendors will go to L&I. 

“If you’re not on that list, you’re asked to move or you’re confiscated,” said DiPietro.

Starting Thursday, a dedicated group of inspectors – the Vending Unit – will be out in Center City  from Bainbridge to Spring Garden streets, river to river. 

They’ll work in 12-hour shifts throughout the event.

The goal is to keep the event safe and peaceful, said DiPietro. But he expects his guys to be busy.

“There might be several dozen vendors confiscated or relocated during [big events]. I imagine something on a scale like this could be many more times that,” he said.

L&I will certainly be on the lookout for those illegally selling T-shirts and water, but also for the street vendor who’s taking things just too far.

Sidelining homemade cooking contraptions will be a big priority.

“We’ve seen virtually everything from shopping carts being rigged to serve as barbecue grills – like a portable barbecue grill. It runs the gamut. People are very creative,” said DiPietro.

Still, DiPietro is serious about this. And he’s got a message for anyone who’s looking to pick up a few bucks on the side while Pope Francis is in town.

“If you’re thinking of selling stuff, and you’re not on the approved list, and you haven’t gotten your licenses, stay home,” he said.

For his part, Askia doesn’t plan on taking DiPietro’s advice.  He intends to do whatever it takes to sell his merchandise.

“I will literally grab some shopping carts — I have a couple carts — and roll down Broad Street.   I’m still gonna meet the masses.  Either on the highway or on the street”, he said.

Askia doesn’t think the pope would mind folks making a few extra dollars.

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