What do you normally have for lunch? Leftovers? A sandwich? Do you bring it from home or do you buy it from a local eatery? In New York City, a sandwich from a deli (with a pickle and a bag of chips) will cost you about $8.00 to $12.00. A salad starts at about $6.00; the price increases depending on how many “extras” you toss in there. For example, my “go-to” salad with tax comes to $13.83, with dressing on the side. Personally, I think that’s a lot for a salad, but when lunch rolls around and I can’t get out of the office, it’s a welcome solution.
Recently, a television show starring a celebrity chef featured a segment where the chef wandered New York City in search of food off the beaten path and a pedestrian recognized him and asked, “What can I get to eat in New York City for $15.00?” The chef directed him to a hot dog institution and a trending burger joint. The point being that food in New York City can get pretty pricey. So what do you do for lunch? One possible solution has been lunch trucks and carts–or it was before trendier restaurants began to participate in the mobile food venue scene.
Food trucks are mobile kitchens hosted in the back of a truck or van. You’ve likely seen them at sporting events, concerts, college campuses, or even near your job if you live in a large metropolitan area. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with their smaller cousin, the food cart: the hot dog and ice cream vendors in the park, for example. Street food vendors have been around for ages–as long as people have been traveling, as long as there have been market spaces, there has been a street food culture. In the early history of New York City, it wasn’t uncommon for oyster carts to patrol the streets, and during the depression apple carts populated the streets. Food carts have long been a way for people with little means to make money.
Food trucks require a little more than carts. A cart can be almost anything, including laundry push carts, which I have seen first-hand in Corona and Flushing in Queens, NY. (I’ve also seen these vendors ticketed for permits, but that’s another story.) An early version of the food truck was the military field kitchen, which was carried by troops in four wheeled wagons that that were adapted into chuckwagons by civilians. Today, there is enormous variety in food truck fare. In the southwestern United States, particularly Texas and California, “taco trucks” serving Mexican foods are immensely popular. In the northeast, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and a variety of other ethnic foods are available from food trucks. They’re fierce competition for local sit-down eateries because “platter” lunches cost about $5.00 or $6.00. For the budget-conscious, they’re a definite deal.
Or at least they used to be. As food trucks gained popularity, speciality trucks and restaurant offshoots entered the scene, and the cost for lunch began to creep up. Speciality foods carry specific costs. For example in a GrubStreet interview the vegan food truck Cinnamon Snail reveals that to produce the items on its menu bakers worked at night to create pastries for the next day. Additionally, its menu required fresh, organic materials. Both of these factors carry a cost that gets passed on to the consumer, who ultimately is paying for the convenience and novelty of the truck.
Cost is also driven by the competition in the industry overall: vendors have to find a good parking spot, avoid being ticketed, and secure a coveted permit to do business in New York City. To survive, owners leave home at earlier and earlier times to find prime spots, use social media to broadcast their locations, engage in a cat-and-mouse game to escape law enforcement, and negotiate a shady underworld of permit procurement. The hassle and the competition has many of the more elite vendors shutting down their trucks and looking to more stable ventures, leaving the food truck industry to the more vulnerable members of society–such as immigrants–who lack status and power to navigate a restrictive legal system that has failed to keep pace with the industry overall. Some of the arcane laws food truck vendors need to contend with include a 30 minute rule that requires carts and trucks to relocate every 30 minutes. It’s a hard one to enforce consistently, and a rule that probably gets flouted most frequently since it can take 30 minutes just to set up. Other laws over the years have closed certain streets to food truck vendors or tried to corral them into specific spaces, which would require people to find them rather than the truck going to a location that better serves hungry consumers.
The result is that the food truck industry is changing. These mobile kitchens are less of a means to an end. They’re not a long term, sustainable business option. Rather, they’re better suited to brand building–attracting entrepreneurs with a strategic plan that they want to test before rolling out broader plans that might involve a brick and mortar establishment or a catering business. In essence, it requires more of an investment beyond purchasing a battered truck. But where does that leave the immigrant groups who have been a mainstay in this industry?
Part of the appeal of New York City food trucks is that they offer a small taste of the world, without the added expense of airfare. Often manned by immigrant families, food trucks serve up a small piece of their culture. For example. the Halal vendors service up chicken or lamb over rice, and an Indian cart New York’s Financial District serves up fresh biryani and kebabs. There was also a local Trinidadian truck, serving stew chicken, curry chicken or beef with roti, currance rolls, and Solo drinks. The Trinidadian truck succumbed to fierce competition from a Jamaican truck–the spicy jerk chicken drew customers away from the festively decorated red and black Trinidadian truck forcing the latter to find different hunting grounds.
These vendors often do see these trucks as an end to a means. They’re a pathway to self-sufficiency and business ownership. But it’s rough going due to erratic regulatory practices. The New York Times Magazine reported that in one afternoon, an Ecuadorean kebab vendor was ticketed six times for a total of $2,850, which is more than she makes in a good week. While many of the long standing players in these scene are moving to brick-and-mortar establishments, including the famed Arepa Lady who resided for many years under the 7 train line in Jackson Heights, it seems that the pathway to these sorts of ends is being limited to those with the funds to invest in branding (and licensing). This road has never been an easy one. There’s stability and security in a restaurant or catering business that doesn’t exist in the truck, which can break down or be subject to the weather (trying to fine parking on unplowed streets would deter anyone). Despite these challenges food trucks aren’t going anywhere, but are we limiting the cultural potential these trucks have to offer?
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