How Twitter Actually Hurts Street Vendors


Since their opening two weeks ago the Schnitzel & Things Truck has been moving around daily, with stops in Williamsburg, Dumbo, Downtown Manhattan, and Union Square, using twitter to let their 1000+ followers know where they are going to be.  Eventually they hope to make it to Midtown, and yesterday they got pretty close- parking in Madison Square Park.  As is usually the case for a new vendor parking in a new spot, things didn’t go so smoothly.  I checked in with the owner to find out exactly what happened.

“We got harassed by 4 different dudes as soon as we showed up.. But we weren’t having it man.. Whatever, it was the usual, you know the “I’ve been on this block for 15 years” routine:) and??? You want us to move because??? Take a walk.. They wouldn’t leave us alone, I called the cops on them for harassment:) then they brought their own cops, it was a freaking mess but funny, cuz they couldn’t do anything.. We reasoned with the cops and they didn’t do anything but leave and the guys were left in bewilderment ..

And then came the real threats…

I will tell you this.. Once they started to threaten our lives, we got a bit aggressive, we won’t put up with that kind of crazy bullshit!! That’s crossing the line!! So all in all, it was ok!! We need to get used to this kind of stuff so it’s good to get experience early!:)”

So this is nothing new.  We’ve been covering clashes like this for awhile now, but it does illustrate one point that hasn’t been discussed yet.

Twitter might be the cause of a lot of these problems.

There is no question that Twitter has been a huge factor in helping to create this current street vendor renaissance we’re experiencing.  Once the first “hipster” vendors started using twitter to broadcast their locations, one of the major barriers to entering street vending disintegrated. With the introduction of twitter it didn’t matter if you were forced to move from your spot.  Just tweet your new location, and your customers will follow.

Being moved by the cops, or a brick and mortar business, or even another vendor is nothing new.  Vendors have dealt with these issues for years.  Their solution has always been to move around in the beginning, until they found a spot that seemed to work- not just for them but for the surrounding vendors and businesses. The longer a vendor was able to park in the same spot, without incident, the more claim he had to the spot. And the longer you spend in one spot, the more your business grows. It takes time, but a strong street vendor community has grown out of this method and although there are skirmishes the vendors usually work things out amongst themselves.

But the key is consistency.  It’s ok to fight, and stand your ground when another vendor tries to get you to move.  Many vendors have done it, like the El Rey del Sabor Mexican cart on 49th and 3rd. They have been parking in that spot without incident for months now, after a pretty rocky start. They’ve staked their claim to the space, and by sticking with it have solidified their right to vend on that corner.  But if they hadn’t returned the next day, and the day after that, they would have probably had to fight again.

With all the new carts and trucks hitting the road these days, it seems that this unwritten code has been thrown out the window- and it’s part of the reason why there have been so many more problems.  Sean Basinski from the Street Vendor Project puts it this way:

“These new trucks that move to a different spot every day have a business model that multiplies their hassles for each day of the week. If you only have one spot, and you fight for it and negotiate with the other vendors, they will eventually accept you in the neighborhood — provided you show up every day to “keep” your spot. The new trucks that move every day are not just having to deal with new hassles with each new spot, but their only being there for one day a week weakens their claim in the eyes of the other vendors.”

And that goes for brick and mortar businesses, and even cops as well.  The longer you park in a space, the more you become part of the surrounding community. You get to know the businesses around you, and help them to embrace you.  It’s what the old school street vendors have been doing for years, and it’s part of the reason why they go to such great lengths to protect the status quo.  If more carts and trucks start showing up on their block, it becomes more likely that the brick and mortar businesses, and beat cops, who have come to tolerate their existence might decide that while one or two vendors were acceptable, five or six vendors parked outside their building is not.

Twitter hit the scene as a seemingly quick fix solution to one of the major issues that new vendors have always faced: getting your customers to find you when you have to constantly move around. But the new batch of twittering street vendors would do well to learn a few things from the old school vendors here in NYC.  Starting a business is difficult, and there are no quick solutions.  While Twitter can be a monster marketing tool that can create instant crowds (and profits) it’s not usually the case.  Like any business you have to pay your dues, and build up your customer base over time.  It’s not going to be easy at the beginning, but the key (as it has always been with street vending) is consistency.  Don’t be lured in by the freedoms that you think twitter affords you.

Use it as a way to stay top of mind, and promote your business to your fans. Give away special deals, and respond to customer complaints. And of course, use it to tell people where you are.  But thinking that it frees you to park anywhere you want, on any day you want is a big mistake. Even the most successful twittering trucks here in New York, like the Treats Truck, have developed a basic weekly schedule that their customers can depend on. That took a lot of time, and now the Treats Truck is reaping the rewards.

And when something comes up, and they are forced to change things up at the last minute, they can twitter about it.  And that’s a far better use the technology.

UPDATE: Just want to make something clear real quick.  I’m not saying that vendors shouldn’t use twitter, or that it’s not a valuable resource.  It’s an incredibly valuable resource, and even old school vendors should be using (and some have started, as you’ve seen with the Steak Truck.)  What I *am* saying is that new school vendors can’t allow twitter to make them complacent.  Don’t think “Hey, I can just move from space to space every single day and twitter my location.”  To build a successful street vending business you need to find a good spot (or spots) and stick with it- through the good and bad.  If you keep moving around day after day, you’re not just going to have a tough time building your sales, but you’re also going to keep running into problems- from other vendors, brick and mortar businesses and the cops.

Is The Current Street Vendor Explosion Sustainable? LA Times Says Yes, I Say No.
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Rafiqi’s Tries To Intimidate New Mexican Cart From 49th Street


  • well written zach, and I do agree with you…
    unfortunately, I don’t think the “new school” vendors are going to give a sh*t about these old school rules and are just gonna do what they do

  • There’s a thing about unwritten rules, they’re organic. They change as often as the weather in NY last month. Let’s suppose I’m a hipster food truck. You know what I would think? That “paying my dues” includes learning to put up with shit, and figuring out the best spot for my business.

    It’s all the same thing in the end. The counter argument to Zach’s point would be… if Truck X picks Spot Y on the first day of business, they sell out, and no one hassles them, then they would probably return. But the truth is they don’t sell out most likely and they do get hassled. Zach’s argument then becomes, “Well if you stay there long enough, business will grow and the hassles will go down.”

    But as a new business venture, what exactly tells me that will work for me in that particular spot? Sure, you could say that’s what the unwritten rules are. But can you really say the old unwritten rules will create success for this new type of business? Maybe, maybe not.

    Like @wslee00 said, these new trucks are just going to do whatever the fuck they want anyway. So I guess it’s all moot.

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    Yeah. Twitter is also a fine solution for carts that have established a location. E.g., the Calexico Cart guys use Twitter to announce daily specials & when the carts will (or won’t) be in their usual spots.

  • @ Danny – Yeah but it’s not moot. A lot of new trucks do exactly what you describe. Park in a spot for a day, don’t sell out, get hassled (or don’t) and move on to a new spot the next day.

    My point is that too many new trucks think they have the luxury of moving around because of twitter, and that eventually they will be able to twitter their location and sell out no matter where they are. And that’s just not the case.

    Relying on twitter to attract all your customers will never be as effective as slowly building up a following that can depend on you being in a certain place at a certain time. And carts should use twitter to reinforce that consistency, not replace it.

  • @Zach,

    You’re right in saying that twitter shouldn’t be used as a luxury to move around daily. What I wanted to get across was that if a hypothetical truck parks in spot A, sells out, doesn’t get hassled, and still moves daily b/c the truck thinks twitter will bring business? Then yes, that’s just kind of stupid. A little reprehensible as a business decision too.

    What I think happens is that all the great spots are gone. So it’s coming down to finding a ‘good’ spot. Now there’s two schools of thought there. You either ‘build up’ your spot or you discover your spot. The old rules say you ‘build up’ your spot, and it looks like the new rule is discover your spot. So the question is whether the old rule is right or the new rule is right?

    Seeing as the old rules got us the black market for permits, vendors who believe they can make physical threats, and an overall malaise in food cart creativity, I just struggle to believe that the majority of the old unwritten rules are the way to go.

    Maybe the new rules aren’t right either. I just don’t know if the trucks are abusing twitter or they simply haven’t discovered a good spot.

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    Parking in a legal spot to conduct a legal business is not a luxury.

    Whether that business model works or not, I think that’s pretty much for them to decide.

    To even equivocate a BIT in the face of this cart harassment is in my opinion, sorry to say, tacit approval of that behavior. Sort of a ‘blame the victim’ response.

    These guys are vile, disgusting criminals. Felons.

    THAT should be the focus, not “hey, if these new guys just went along, they wouldn’t bring these problems on themselves.”


  • Zach, I think you’re missing the point here a bit. We definitely do not think that we can just twitter our new location and we will sell out. I didn’t think that strategy would work, and it hasn’t thus far. We park in a new location everyday for now just to understand the areas, and get into a rhythm on the truck. The plan is to obviously build up a customer base from only several locations. But that will only happen once we TEST out what works and what doesn’t.

    I also support the “old school vendors” and respect the fact that they built up their spots over years, but that doesn’t mean that they OWN a block and I can’t park there!!

    If you guys only knew the conditions your halal food is being prepared in, I don’t think most of you would ever eat at these places again!

    The bottom line is, we have a right to conduct business. If we are parked legally, and do not cause any problems, then no one has the right to tell us to leave.

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    All of this reminds me of ecommerce in the boom. Brick and mortar stores were freaking out, some went out of business. Some coopted and got their own site, a few of which were successful. A lot of the dot.coms who didn’t have a real business model failed, but a few thrived and became hugely successful.

    However, I think it’s wrong to say Twitter hurts vendors. That’s like saying the web hurts companies. It changed the landscape, and some companies fell by the wayside , but a few figured out how to use it and excelled, That was good for customers.

    I think you’re right – it will take time to see what shakes out. However, the fact there are unwritten rules that Twitter trucks are disrupting isn’t a bad thing for them or us.

    About community: who would have thought you could have built an online community like Midtown Lunch 10 years ago, and why can’t these trucks also use tech to build community as well?

  • As far as I know, and I work and live right by MAd. Park, there is only one semi permanent food vendor (hot dog) around the Park during the day. I know there is a MR. Softee truck that comes, around sometimes but parks outside of the park between Madison and Park on 26th. The Mad Park vendor is in the NW corner by the entrance. MAybe one parks on the SW corner too on some days, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a regular cart there. I can’t imagine who’d be harassing the shnitzel cart, or where they parked. I know my street meat cart on madison between 27th and 28 is permanent, 24/7, so maybe it was them. If so, I will have to “talk to them.” They don’t seem to be the violent type, or even aware of what is around the Park,but if they are, I will have words…and by words, I mean my machete and asp baton will be slicing and dicing!!!!

  • @Goats,

  • Seriously, these food wars are f’ing ridiculous….although I do find them highly entertaining to a degree….

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    I was going to write something like speczar but I was far too lazy and he’s far more articulate. New carts, new technology, new game, new rules. I see no problem with this.

    I personally have not tried many of the new “hipster” trucks because I have a hard time finding them and I don’t use twitter, but more power to them for upping the street food game.

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    Taking a shot at the conditions of EVERY halal guy is probably not the best way to lose your enemies.

  • Here’s my thoughts on this – the main reason that there’s so many food carts getting into trouble in Midtown is because they’re all vying for the same consumer. Economics states that if supply is saturated then everyone is worse off.

    The area I work around flatiron and Mad sq park has a tonne of offices and hardly any of these new style trucks. I havn’t seen one since I started working there in March (except the pizza truck on 17th+5th).

    Manhattan is a big place, while I read midtown lunch because it’s entertaining, usually I’m not willing to go 20 blocks for the food on a lunch hour, but I do note stuff for the weekends.

    So I’m saying that these food trucks don’t have to put up with all the shit they get in midtown. There are far less dirty dog and halal vendors a little further downtown.

    Zach, I know you midtowners want all the choice possible, but is it really worth death threats for the vendors when the market is already over saturated?

  • all this stuff about “unwritten rules” is junk. Intimidation and harassment is anti-competitive and wrong. Is that hot-dog guy of 15 years paying rent for his piece of sidewalk? no, he has no claim to it. It’s by the grace of the resident tax-payers of the city to allow him to sell on public property, so he can shut-up about his “spot”. Every licensed mobile food vendor has equal claim to all tax-payer funded property. I don’t like people staking claim to things that don’t belong to them, or rather really belong to the residents of NYC equally.

    Let these new hipster food trucks move around in their mobile-truck and advertise their location, they have as much right as anyone else to any piece of NYC property.

  • Right on Al. That is my thought exactly—from a pure legal perspective, these street vendors have 0 rights to their space.

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    It’s an interesting point. I seem to remember under Giuliani there being a location tied to a permit for sidewalk vendors. Something about preventing too many vendors clogging up high-traffic/touristy spots in Manhattan.

    Does anyone know if that still is the case?

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    I’m with jerkface – more of these trucks need to spend time in Flatiron! Occasionally we get Wafels & Dinges and Cupcake Stop (but that’s not really lunch, that’s dessert), and the Halal Truck on 28th & Madison, but otherwise it’s just a spattering of hot dog vendors and a random halal cart. I get a long enough lunch that I can go down to Union Square when the trucks visit there (made a special trip last week for Schnitzel and today hit up Bistro Truck, plus the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck always makes my day better), but it would be nice to have more of these “hipsters” in lonely Flatiron!

    More on topic: I understand why these “unwritten rules” evolved – when you’re a hot dog vendor, naturally you don’t want another hot dog vendor popping up a few feet away since they would clearly be vying for the same business. But I don’t think they’re as practical anymore since most of these trucks are bringing distinctly different food and, quite frankly, are probably attracting a different audience (I wonder how many customers of the twitter-using vendors are coming by specifically because of the twitter feed vs. how many just happen to wander by and decide they want waffles/schnitzel/whatever).

  • Maybe the game is changing. Maybe different locations all the time will fit our changing New York better than the guys who stake a corner forever.

  • somewhat related: was at one of my old stomping grounds the other day and these two italian ice vendors rolled by each other and one stopped to offer the other bottles of water. they took it and offered some ice but he declined and just said “us vendors got to stick together” a few times until they nodded in agreement and then he left. street vendor project seems to be doing well. but you’ve just showcased the downside of all that — strong opposition to new entrants. from a business’s point of view, that’s normal to want to keep your share of the market and you should fight for something like that. but from a consumer standpoint, that sucks.

    @taco, that game will never change. the only way they can succeed is if they are either at one place all the time or everywhere all the time.

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