Is The Current Street Vendor Explosion Sustainable? LA Times Says Yes, I Say No.


The issues that new street vendors face here in Midtown are pretty well documented on Midtown Lunch, so much so that it seems like many of the latest street vendors to hit the scene are avoiding us.  The Schnitzel Truck, for one, vowed to park in Midtown for lunch- but decided to hold off until they “worked out the kinks”. The new Bistro Truck also hopes to end up in Midtown at some point, but plans on starting off in Union Square.  It’s a smart strategy.  After all, Midtown during lunch is the prime real estate for food carts. More customers means you have to be on your a-game.  It’s why there’s so much competition for spots, and also why there’s so much trouble for new vendors when they show up.

But is that “trouble” spreading to other neighborhoods?

Yesterday the Schnitzel Truck twittered this from their spot in Union Square:

“Cops are telling us to move.. Complaints from no 31 restaurant!! Not cool!! Saying it’s against the law to Vend in front of restaurant.”

According to an email I got from the owner Oleg, they ended up working it out.

“Blue water gill called the cops on us and they told us to move but eventually caved and let us stay:) we aren’t even in front of the restaurant which makes the complaint even more weird.”

Sounds familiar, right? (Except for the part about letting them stay.) With all these new trucks starting to go to Union Square, it should be no surprise that the businesses have started to fight back.  And it’s a lesson that vendors, Midtown Lunch’ers, and cart advocates should learn from.

A new article in the LA Times this week (via Eater) says this new street vendor explosion is sustainable because…

“…these decidedly experimental — and often expensive — nouveau food trucks may be more than just an emblem of culinary fusion or a clever use of social networking technologies. They may actually herald a significant change in the mobility patterns of young, middle-class urbanites known as ‘millennials.’”

“I think the vending phenomenon is the product of a whole new lifestyle,” says James Rojas, founder and co-chairman of the Latino Urban Forum and a transportation planner for L.A. County’s MTA.

“Traditionally, taco trucks were very working class — janitors, secretaries, people on public transit — but now they’ve been adopted by the middle class as a legitimate way to buy and sell food,” Rojas says. “I think people under 30 want to bike and walk and take transit. These aren’t Latinos that have to take transit. These are privileged, middle-class kids. So taco trucks are targeting this group.”

Well, we know that’s not the case here in New York City… and I highly doubt that people are riding their bikes, and taking public transportation to the Kogi Taco Truck. But there is no question that twitter has enabled the public to connect with these mobile vendors on a deep level- and there is enough interest to support a seemingly infinite number of trucks. (And new entrepreneurs are clearly more than happy to oblige.)

But this whole notion of consumer support being the major issues, completely ignores the real threat facing this onslaught of mobile food trucks. And that is finding a place to vend where they can live side by side with the already existing brick and mortar businesses- who pay rent, and spent a lot of money to build their “spot”.

The legacy vendors, who make up most of the carts and trucks in Midtown, all would own 10 carts if they could. But they do their expansion very slowly, because they understand that any disruption to the current state of things would trigger a major backlash from surrounding businesses (and other carts, who self police in an effort to maintain the fragile balance they’ve created over the years.) This is something that the new crop of vendors have not fully grasped.

The biggest threat to this current “street vendor trend” is not the fickle public losing interest, or not finding enough customers to eat their food. It’s going to be holding off the brick and mortar entrepreneurs from enlisting the government (and police) to help protect their territory.

I fully support the efforts of the Street Vendor Project to get the city to expand the number of permits available to alleviate the black market. And it’s easy to say “more carts is better for the consumer!” But that is not necessarily true. A sudden increase in carts could mean bad things for some of our favorite street vendors (and not just the hipster ones.) I’m already seeing it in some places.

One of our favorite carts (who I won’t mention by name, to protect them from the building) has seen a sudden increase in the number of carts on their block. Originally it was just them, but in the past year 3 more carts have parked alongside them, hoping to capitalize on their overflow. After years of never being bothered by anybody, the building they operate in front of is starting to take notice. It hasn’t escalated yet, but it’s been made clear that they could take action.

What I’m trying to say is not all increases in the number of carts are positive. And any increase must be done in a trickle. If not, you’re going to see more and more issues like what happened in Union Square yesterday. And what happened in front of Bistro Milano last month. And in the end, they won’t “cave and let us stay.” Because one truck is something that a restaurant might tolerate. 10 is a whole different ball game.

Street Vendor Project Supports Black Market Crackdown
New York Times Turns Giant Eye Towards the Street Vendor Issue


  • Blue Water Grill got my money for restaurant week. Thats the only money they’ll get, now. Shame.

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    Brick and mortars took advantage of the spike in rice and flour last year and raised their prices. When the price of staple goods receded, very few lowered their cost. In part this truck phenomenon represents a backlash on the part of midtowners who don’t want to spend $6.79 for a piece of shit sandwich at Metro Cafe and can’t find a decent meal for less than $6 – $7 here in midtown. The brick and mortars will still have business in the form of people who want to sit down in a restaurant and eat instead of eating at their desks. When December comes, and people won’t eat outside or walk as far, the new crop of vendor trucks with high overhead and leverage will be culled, and only the strong will still be standing.

    Also, rents were very high until 12 – 18 months ago, but as leases begin to approach 2 – 3 years from maturity, there can be a lot of negotiation with landlords about lower rents and subsidies. Brick and mortars need to adapt to competition, not be shielded from it. People are demanding new ways to consume food, and it is changing the landscape of the street, thats just how capitalism works. If a restaurant that serves bankers and lawyers in midtown cant get that, it can’t be everyone elses problem?

  • @flatrock – Sure, but part of unfettered capitalism is making enough money to pay for influence, and that’s something the brick and mortars have over the vendors. If trucks have a negative effect on the bottom line of all those giant skyscrapers in Midtown, you better believe the powers that be are going to care more about protecting their interests over the interests of a bunch of street vendors.

    It’s still going to end up being a byproduct of the system you’re advocating.

  • @flatrock,
    You’re right to say that businesses have to adapt. You know how they’re going to do it? I introduce you to… Taco Bell food truck! Yes it’s real, and yes that’s what food truck mania is going to do. Why pay rent when you get free rent if you get a truck? No business is going to be stupid enough to bleed profit if they can make money with just a truck.

    I tell you, the minute they increase that permit count to 25,000, I bet you McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, will join in. Maybe even places like Pret and those high end places.

    My thinking is the city won’t allow this. When you decrease demand for store spaces, you’re going to lower the rent. When you do that, property owners will get killed on property taxes until they ask the city to re-estimate their property value based upon lower demand/rent. Lower property value = lower property taxes. Ain’t no city in the world that welcomes that.

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    Guys, its not like change is bad. Midtown lunching is becoming unsustainable for those of us that don’t make giant six figure salaries. I try to bring my lunch as much as possible, but when I don’t, I shouldn’t be ripped off? Hot Dog carts and halal carts peddle low quality food (albeit tasty, I was at SMP2 and loved it). I dont think this fight is about variety as much as quality. Taco Bell and Wendy’s are not going to be able to hold a candle to the quality put out by the treats truck, NYC Cravings, La Cense, etc.

    Government regulation may be unavoidable, and if thats the case, maybe we should shift the focus of the conversation to whats the best way to regulate. Should the city limit permits and make them location specific? Maybe there should also be a small number of more expensive “roving” permits that allow trucks to park in multiple locations?

    All I’m saying is change is driven by the consumer, and I think that the new trucks are about good things, we are seeing grass fed beef and organic fod. Wait until a cart opens selling all locally sourced food. Halal carts and hot dog carts have stagnated and people in general are looking for new ways to eat.

  • Yikes — a Taco Bell/Wendys/KFC food truck scares me. When I walk down 53rd Street between 5th & 6th Avenue, I pay attention to the row of street vendors rather than the brick & mortar stores. It’s Street Vendor Alley over there!
    What I found interesting about the LA Times article was that it pointed out an important link — street vendors (as well as brick & mortar restaurants) are using social networking sites to attract the “millennial” generation. Will the urban millennial generation(like myself) eventually be defined as the “Twittering Mobile Generation”?

    @Flatrock — I wouldn’t be surprised to see an organic/compostable food truck sprout up (like a mobile Danku). More “Green” trucks is inevitable. I’m tried of generic halal and hot dog carts.

  • I’m all for the free market, and unless and until the govn’t steps in and passes a law which mandates that these carts remain in specific vending locations, I think the brick and mortar businesses need to stfu. They have no legal right to prevent others from vending in front of their establishment from the street. They do not own the street. Sure, they pay rent, but that gives them the ability to make better product, hopefully at a fair price. You can do lots of good things on a truck, but it’s not a full kitchen, like all of these places have the opportunity to utilize as they are paying rent. Their quality of food, food maintenance and food preparation preparation should easily exceed that of a truck. If they were to competitively price their food, I believe the trucks could be driven out of business. I think the truck revolution is a good thing for consumers, as it forces these brick and mortar places to stop ripping us off quite as badly.

  • @goats – I agree that I don’t want to pay $10 for a sandwich, or eat a $30 lunch at a fancy restaurant… but I wouldn’t go so far as to say these places are “ripping us off”. I don’t think anybody is making too much money in this economy, and even overpriced brick and mortar businesses are hurting (and not because their prices aren’t competitive. Everyone is struggling across the board…)

    If you want to pummel anybody, it should be the building owners, jacking up their rents to unsustainable rates in order to pay for buildings that they themselves overpaid for in a frenzy to make money on a real estate market that nobody ever thought would go down.

    Those people are the real criminals… and a huge reason why we’re in this financial mess to begin with.

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    I love the carts, the diversity, the opportunity, the cheap lunches, etc. I hate the bullying, by other carts, cops, landlords.

    But let’s be real: If a cart showed up outside the expensive restaurant space I was busting my ass to keep running, especially if there was overlap and I thought they were stealing my customers, or if they were running an engine or a generator making noise or smell, or creating a chaotic line scene outside my windows…or whatever, I would be on the phone in a minute and continuously.

    I’d be screaming at my landlord, calling my local reps looking for parking rule changes, I’d be setting up video surveillance and filing complaints about every single violation I saw. That cop I’ve been feeding free coffee to for a few years? I’d see if he could do a me a solid and roust the bastards a couple of times on some pretense.

    I’d also be on the phone in a minute setting up my own anti-cart lobbying group. And who has better connections – the restaurants who feed the politicians, or the carts who feed the office schlubs?

    That’s just some of the legal remedies I’d try. I know some guys….

    Seriously – if I had money on the line and my back to the wall, and a bunch of carts were stealing my lunch money, I would not go quietly or pretty.

  • Interesting arguments on both sides. But if the law says the carts can set up in legal spots, even near b&m restaurants, so be it. If they need a permit, the restaurants can try to get enforcement beefed up to weed out the bogus permits, as well as lobby against increasing the permit cap. But if the permits are legally issued and owned, and the spots are legally occupied, then I agree with goats that the b&m’s should stfu. And pulling crap like calling cops and harassing carts with no legal basis is BS!

    BTW, Formz: Sorry that BWG got your money, even for restaurant week. That place is an overpriced tourist trap with decidedly subpar food. I live nearby and get stuck going there about once per year when other people insist on having dinner there. Each meal reminds me why I will never choose to patronize BWG. Gram Tavern and Union Square Cafe are MUCH better nearby options! And yet that craphole always seems to be busy. Go figure.

  • I agree with both Zach and Mike to a degree. Zach is right to point out the real estate fiasco has made this mess much worse, and has inflated prices in some neighberhoods tremendously. And, as a lawyer (by day), I agree with Mike that you have to use the law to protect yourself. However, this can and should be done without bullying people or trying to pull stuff that is, in at least my opinion, way above or outside of the law. If you are creating a public nuisance, fine. IF your generator is so loud that customers inside your establishment are openly complaining that their heads are going to explode, then fine, that is a legit complaint and the cops can and should step in. However, using corrupt street tactics and influence (the free coffee cop) to push people around is bullsh&t in my opinion. Yes, it happens, but that certainly doesn’t make it right in my book. We all have the SAME rights under the law, and those with power should not be entitled to circumvent the system we are ALL supposed to live by. Yes, scumbags like Dante Stallworth, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress,Bernie MAdoff,[and of course Blue water grill, pret a manger etc. (LOL]) etc get away with bs that none of us could ever hope to do, but that certainly doesn’t make that type of corruption alright in my book. It is one of the biggest failings of our society, and is something I feel should be broken down, not held up. It is the City’s job to properly regulate and make very clear and precise laws to protect the brick and mortars AND the vendors. I am all for designated vendor locations. I think that is the fairest thing to do. They should also be required to pay a type of “rent” for these spaces (just like I think the Rutgers grease trucks do). That’s my political 2 cents. I need to start drinking immediately….

  • @Goats,
    What’s wrong with spot permits?

  • goats dude, we should have a beer (etc.) together sometime. I agree and the same BS stuff pisses me off.

  • Danny – good idea. Permits could specify locations (maybe different ones during different days or times). That would help avoid the bullying, and spots that are agreeable to b&m places could be established. But it would wind up being very complicated (government at work here), as I’m sure there would need to be an “approval” process for the locations. It would be easier to enforce permits, though, because you would know that a cart had a legit permit for a specific location.

  • oh also, when you start talking about “renting” spaces, you get into “who should get which space?” which is the same question is, “how much should i charge for this space until i find someone who’s willing to take it?” which then becomes a variation of the bidding system.

    Which if you start calling it that, lots of people will get mad, b/c this is America. And we don’t do bidding systems here.

  • @ Danny—I’m totally for the space permits. As I said “I am all for designated vendor locations.” Yes, there are other issues that will come up, such as who gets to go where, but I think these can be worked out. I think a random lottery or a constant rotating schedule could be established. Of course, it may take some regulating, but these costs could be covered by the “rents” the trucks pay to the City. Obviously, this is off the cuff, but you get where I’m going I hope. I think the issues that would come up would be far more controllable than having no rules and chaos, as the case is now.

    @ Stevenp. Beer? I don’t drink (until noon–oh wait—speaking of which….)I say we organize a ML happy hour!!!! FOr everyone!

  • In my office we start at 11. Unless bloody marys are involved, in which case it is any time after waking up.

    I’m onboard for a ML happy hour. Lunchtime. Maybe Rudy’s? Beer and hot dogs to start the afternoon off right! And Shorty’s is across the street, as well as Piece of Chicken and other stuff nearby.

  • I will go anywhere people want. Perhaps a forum should be started, and a date selected? Should we do a lunch happy hour, or a regular happy hour? In all likelihood, I will take the day off if we do a lunch happy hour as 1 hr. is just a tease for me! LOL

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    1. Totally in for ML happy hour, I wish I could drink at 11 but my office is way too stuffy (I find I am far more productive in the office after a few anyway!!).

    2. Stevenp and Goats are obviously lawyers and they speak to the heart of the current issue, if you are legally licensed and legally parked you can be wherever you want.

    3. I think that an auction for spots, with an “insider system” where carts that are currently legally licensed and have an established spot (verified by a petition of patrons?, or better yet, by Zach, ML King!) might be a good way to go.

    Thanks all for some of the most intelligent commenting on this site. Now lets get back to DocChucks Hamster!

  • Rudy’s gets entirely too packed for going with more than one or two people, even early in the week. You’d need to find a place with a good space for mingling. Places like Cassidy’s on 55th or Stout on 33rd come to mind.

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