Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 17, 2011

Snarfing His Way Through New York City

Midtown Lunch writer and Urban Oyster food tour guide Brian Hoffman cares little for the provenance of his pickings, so long as they're tasty.

Vincent Valk

Want to know where the best food is in New York? You could do worse than to ask Brian Hoffman, who leads tours of the city's food carts and trucks for Urban Oyster and writes about them at Midtown Lunch. Hoffman is also the cofounder of Eat This New York, a blog where he has ranked the city's best pizza, bagels, and ice cream, among other things. (An actor by trade, Hoffman has also built a web series chronicling his adventures in face-stuffing.)

Brian Hoffman. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Strader Photography.
"If food trucks become overly regulated, larger corporations will want to get involved and it won't be long before the trucks are no different than those generic fast-food chains."

Brian Hoffman. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Strader Photography.

Gelf recently caught up with Hoffman to talk all things food-y. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Hoffman considers the role of food trucks in the city, their relationship with restaurants, and the life of a food junkie.

Gelf Magazine: What role do street vendors and food trucks play in the culinary life of a neighborhood?

Brian Hoffman: Street vendors are small-business owners who offer affordable, innovative alternatives to the generic, chain restaurants that populate most US cities. Many of the neighborhoods in New York are inundated with unappealing fast-food chains and high end, expensive restaurants. For the most part, the food from trucks is more affordable, more unique, and more fun. And since they're mobile, it keeps the options in each neighborhood fresh and changing.

Gelf Magazine: Food trucks in New York currently exist in a legal grey area. Do you think the city should create legal space for them?

Brian Hoffman: I think the outdated laws need to be addressed. It doesn't make any sense for the trucks to be permitted to sell food, yet there is nowhere for them to legally park. I think stationary food lots are one possible answer, but there should also be legal parking spots throughout the city. These are mobile vendors and their business relies on foot traffic. How can they operate properly if they are no longer mobile?

Gelf Magazine: To what extent do food trucks actually siphon business from brick-and-mortar eateries, if at all?

Brian Hoffman: As long as the truck and the brick-and-mortar restaurant serve different types of food, I don't think they take away much business. However, I don't think a pizza truck should park in front of a pizzeria, for example. There is common courtesy on the street and from my experience, most of the food trucks in the city follow those unwritten rules. In many ways, I think they help brick-and-mortar businesses. When you're standing in line waiting for the food from a truck, you are in one place and will notice a brick-and-mortar eatery more so than if you're walking quickly by. It's perfect product placement. Also, there are many times that the lines at food trucks are much too long and you only have a 30-minute break, and since you can't wait in line but you need to eat lunch, the closest brick-and-mortar eatery will have to do.

Gelf Magazine: In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Midtown Lunch editor Zach Brooks noted that the city has always periodically cracked down on street food vendors, before letting up again. Do you think that this too shall pass, or is it different this time?

Brian Hoffman: I'm really not sure. This is the first time we've ever seen food trucks with such influence in terms of marketing and media. They have become hugely popular across the country and some cities that have previously not allowed mobile food vendors are now making strides to legalize them. So that makes me think this time may be different.
However, in New York, there has been resistance and a different sort of regulations from the very beginning. And there have been many times in the history of this city that vendors were either restricted or banned from selling on the streets, but vending continued, oftentimes without consequences. So I do think this could be just part of the cycle and it's possible as the popularity of the "food truck fad" eventually settles, some other city issue will replace these concerns and vendors will again operate in that "grey area."
I do strongly agree with Zach that if food trucks become overly regulated, larger corporations will want to get involved in the "food fad" and it won't be long before the trucks on the street are no different than those generic fast-food chains. It's already been announced that both Applebee's and The Gap are launching food trucks in other cities. Food vending in New York has always been an outlet for entrepreneurs with fewer resources and opportunities. That's a big concern of mine.

Gelf Magazine: What has blogging about food in the city taught you about New York's food scene?

Brian Hoffman: It's diverse, massive, and just like this city, it's ever-changing. I love that classic 100-year-old food institutions such as Katz's Deli or Grand Central Oyster Bar can co-exist with all the new groundbreaking artisanal food businesses arriving every day. There's always something new to try and something old to try. Some people keep trying to reinvent the classics while others are dedicated to continuing the food traditions that have been in place for years. And both styles are welcome in this city. I also love that no matter how many restaurants or food trucks I eat from, there will always be something new to try, thanks to the thousands of authentic ethnic dishes and the constant creation of fusion cuisines. This city is truly a melting pot and nowhere is it more evident than in the food that is available.

Gelf Magazine: What's your favorite food truck (or trucks, there can be more than one, of course)?

Brian Hoffman: Oh, boy. I get asked that question all the time on the Food Cart Tours and it's nearly impossible to answer. It's a similar frustration when somebody asks me my favorite restaurant in the city. They're all so different, how can I possibly pick a favorite? Truthfully, I love so many of the food trucks on the street. I've met amazing business owners with fascinating stories who have such a passion for what they do and you can taste it in their food and feel it in their customer service. I'd have to ask you what kind of food or experience you'd like and then we can start narrowing it down. I will say that I recently spent a weekend in another city and went to one of their Food Truck Rallies and found the food much less inspired and diverse. So can my answer be the food trucks in New York are my favorites?

Front-page image courtesy of Steve Rhodes' Flickr via Creative Commons

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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