New York City's Dreams on Wheels Wake Up to Reality

Carol Berens

Turning lemons into lemonade may be an aphorism, but apparently some people prefer a more literal interpretation. After being laid off from a law firm in 2009, Alex Rein decided to make lemonade—as well as Spicy Ginger, Tangy Citrus and Green & Black Tea Slushes—and less than one year later, Kelvin Natural Slush Co. won Best Dessert in a 2010 New York street food competition.

 

The phenomenon of gourmet food trucks proliferating throughout the country is a story full of drama and happenstance, combining the tragedy of financial ruin, the joy of mixing spices and cuisines, the serendipity of social media and the age-old capitalist dream of personal reinvention in the hopes of striking it rich. Around America—in traditional street-food urban centers as well as smaller cities—shoppers and office workers now search for these trucks not only for a cheap lunch and snack—if one can call a $6 ice cream cone or a $15 lobster roll cheap—but also for the quality and diversity of the food.

 

Goodbye hot dogs and pretzels, hello Korean BBQ and Turkish tacos. The Food Network, blogs, and of course ticket-issuing authorities are rushing to keep pace.

 

In New York City, as the countries of origin of the immigrants who operated food carts changed from Europe to points further afield, their street fare expanded to include halal chicken over rice from Pakistan, falafel from the Middle East, arepas from Venezuela and tacos and tortillas from Mexico. The impetus was the same—finding a source of income that tolerated limited English and required low start-up costs. These carts staked out their territories everyday on sidewalks under stringent location guidelines with respect to curbs, building entrances, and gentleman’s agreements regarding competition.

 

That these carts often served excellent food was acknowledged when New York’s Street Vendor Project started in 2005 bestowing Vendy Awards, which now consist of several categories including the “People’s Choice.” (Local food lore has it that the 2007 People’s Choice winner, Russian Tea Room veteran, Mohammed Rahman of Kwik Meal, coached Bobby Flay for the Food Network’s falafel throwdown.) This last category is an outright acknowledgement about street food—that the relationship between the eaters and the carts, the food and the vendors is personal and strong.

 

Over the last four or five years, however, the hard life of the vendor, so poignantly portrayed in Ramin Bahrani’s independent film Man Push Cart, seems to have been transformed into one of hospitality and hipness. They’ve become personal catering companies, secrets that only you and several thousand of your friends share. New York’s food trucks began to polish their anti-establishment and customer-friendly aura in March 2001when the MUD Truck peddled its self-styled “New York Street Coffee” from its boxy converted Con Ed step-van as an antidote to more commercial ventures, a place where locals could hang out, get a good cup of coffee, listen to music and meet their neighbors. Originally parked in the East Village between two Starbucks, the MUD Truck was developed by a couple, Nina Berott and Greg Northrop, so they could be independent and close to their newborn baby.

 

Start-up reasons remain the same, but now the simple cup of Joe is a rarity. The scarcity of jobs for bankers and lawyers spurred those with gumption to embark on something new, to follow their dreams and to fill what they perceive as culinary voids—whether it’s homemade oatmeal cookies, authentic Belgian waffles or German sausage or a new twist on fusion cuisine. Former chefs and wannabe entrepreneurs with fancy business plans from MBA programs are getting in the act. Experimenting with $75,000 to $100,000 as a truck start-up cost surely beats finding $1 million to launch a midtown restaurant with a soaring monthly rental.

 

The savvy use of Twitter, the source of up-to-the-minute locations and in-the-know specials (say “Taco Tuesday” and save $1), as well as food blogs that rate the latest offerings propel popularity and create buzz. Soon three or four trucks were lining up on the streets of midtown New York, taking up valuable parking spaces, clogging sidewalks (quality is easy to spot—just look for the truck or cart with the longest lines), and impinging on each other’s business (carts parking in front of trucks’ windows).

Now the Treats Truck, Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, and Schnitzel & Things are roving around more than ever searching for spots to sell their goods. Putting the brakes on a trend, on May 24, 2011, a New York court ruled that an existing law banning the sale of merchandise from metered spots includes food. The case stemmed from a suit brought by the Street Vendor Project that sought an end to police harassment of trucks. The tactic backfired. As a result, trucks are scrambling to neighborhoods outside of midtown to search for other neighborhoods, converting to carts or just taking their chances. Meanwhile, op-ed pieces pitch all sides of the story, and munchers step up to order whenever a truck comes by: the frisson of covertness restored.

 

Selling goods from carts is more American than America, common even during Colonial times, and arguments for and against them as well as official reactions have not varied much since. When those grainy black-and-white pictures of cheek-by-jowl Lower East Side immigrant vendors were taken, store keepers, city authorities and newspapers were trying to erase them from the cityscape under the rubric of cleaning up neighborhoods and protecting stores that pay rent and taxes. Fiorello La Guardia banished them to defined markets whereupon business for both stores and relocated pushcarts immediately plummeted, proving yet again that businesses sell where there are customers and competition brings customers.

 

Today, local businesses and cities are searching for ways to eliminate or tame these trucks, usually by corralling vendors into market places or restricting their locations. In New York, efforts are underway to create places in parks or green markets where these trucks can gather. Instead of catering to office workers, these trucks now serve tourists.

 

In response, as with the earlier carts of Bloomingdales and Cohen’s Fashion Optical, today’s vendors are establishing roots with bricks-and-mortar restaurants, their offerings honed and brands established. Most rent themselves out for weddings and special occasions. David Weber, an owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling Trucks (which also has two restaurants) and president of New York City Food Truck Association, initiated a petition to change the City’s approach and seek support of the food truck craze as an energizer of street life. Not everyone agrees. Zach Brooks who runs the five-year-old blog, Midtown Lunch, argued in a New York Times op-ed piece that the grey areas of the law keep the trucks “real” and prevent established businesses from opening up truck franchises, ossifying street food offerings.

 

After all, the smell of a bargain and the lure of discovering the next best thing define the art of street shopping and fuel the rise of the gourmet food trucks. That they don’t always live up to their hype doesn’t dampen the joy of the hunt. Your next favorite meal could be lumbering up to the curb tomorrow.

Author Bio:

Carol Berens is an architect and writer in New York City. Her most recent book isRedeveloping Industrial Sites (2010, Wiley). She also writes for UrbDeZine, a website that revolves around urban design issues. Her website is www.carolberens.com.

​Images: Photos by Carol Berens

​1. Korilla BBQ: One of the latest (and largest) trucks to enter the NYC market, building on the LA Korean BBQ trend. 

2. Jamaican Dutchy: A Vendy 2009 finalist when it was a sidewalk cart, this new truck is a multimedia extravaganza, serving music and videos as well as jerk chicken and curry goat.

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