For decades, mobile food in New York meant food carts. Traditionally operated by immigrants, first Eastern European and Italian, then Greek and today generally Middle Eastern, the carts served basic fare: hot dogs, falafel, kebabs and knishes. Later, more ambitious proprietors added cheeseburgers or cheesesteaks, but the choices were hardly haute cuisine. Many credit failed Le Bernardin extern, Roy Choi, with taking food carts to the next level. In 2008, the Los Angeles chef debuted not a cart, but a truck, serving Korean style tacos.
Photo courtesy The New York Times
On a less flashy scale, chefs had already been innovating in New York for years, with Treats Truck and Hallo Berlin blazing the path. From Korean tacos and German street food, NY chefs took food truck possibilities in every logical, and some not so logical, directions. Within a few years, there were spots serving grass-fed beef burgers, cupcakes, Belgian frites and “Big Gay” ice cream. Even a truck serving “schnitzel and things” became a hit, making an appearance in a T-Mobile commercial. The New York food vendor awards, known affectionately as the Vendys, saw the variety of contenders skyrocket. With each day more trucks, exploring more food options, appeared around the city. Thanks to the lower overhead of running a truck as opposed to a restaurant, young New York chefs found trucks offered exciting opportunities and ways to innovate, without taking the massive risks that opening a restaurant entails. The relatively inexpensive, but by no means low quality food, was perfectly suited to recession-era America. These trucks also proved a gateway to more full service restaurants down the line, both by introducing foods such as Korean tacos to many menus, or by proprietors expanding their food truck model into a restaurant format once a customer base has been established.
Even popular food bible, Zagat Survey, adapted to the trend. “Over the past two years, an increasing number of diners say they frequent food trucks and follow them on Twitter and Facebook”, said Tim Zagat, co-founder of the eponymous books. “The overall popularity of food trucks has not only led to their inclusion in our guides, but also to our first food truck survey, which will be released later this year.”
A strength that sets the trucks apart from their smaller sibling, the cart, is that, well they are trucks. The extra space means chefs have many of the same tools as those operating in a kitchen. The largest food cart might boast two workers, but a truck can have a full kitchen staff. Unfortunately, this size differential has also proven a weakness. Food carts station themselves on sidewalks and have permits. A truck needs to park in the street. For years this hadn’t proven a problem. But on May 24, that all changed. It was then that New York State Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey D. Wright ruled that food trucks were violating a 1950s era city transportation department regulation stating that no “vendor, hawker or huckster shall park a vehicle at a metered parking space” to offer “merchandise for sale from the vehicle.” It was a Black Tuesday for the food truck world.
By June, police were shooing some of the city’s most popular vendors from their longtime spots. To date, officers have only been issuing warnings, but that hasn’t changed the fact that without a place to park, it’s impossible to operate a food truck. According to The New York Times, many vendors believe the new ruling and the ensuing crackdowns are a result of complaints by “brick-and-mortar businesses.”
Some trucks have found an alternative in “food-truck lots”, such as the one in Midland Beach, Staten Island. But having all the vendors in the same parking lot is more akin to the famed Brooklyn Flea; it’s not truly street food. It may work in a city like Los Angeles, where everyone has a car and walking is nearly a crime, but New York is a city of pedestrians. Food trucks are places where folks from all socioeconomic levels mingle, waiting in the same long line for the same delicious food. As David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association and Rickshaw Dumpling truck owner, recently told the Times, “Food trucks activate public space.” As trucks become over regulated, or in some cases, driven out of business by bureaucracy, not only will this new, creative side to New York’s food culture fade, but so will these public spheres. Perhaps it is not hopeless though. Zagat believes, “As in the case of New York’s famous street vendors, I believe that the food trucks will achieve a Modus Vivendi with the NYPD.”