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.
“…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.