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.

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