Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 16, 2011

The Food Trucks Shift Into Gear

David Weber, restaurateur and head of the New York City Food Truck Association, believes New York can have its gourmet food and eat it, too.

Adam Rosen

It can be hard to pin down the new New York City food truck. What is in essence a remarkably simple premise—a large conveyance vending comestibles to willing consumers—has, like any other endeavor that dare disturb the New York City universe, been rendered a complicated and ill-defined affair. Are food trucks a "fad?" Are they just for "foodies," or are they for anyone desirous of 3-for-$7 tacos, whether they come with kimchi or not? Are they harmful or helpful to neighborhood economies? Should trucks be treated by the authorities as restaurants, or as something else?

Truth is, no one's really sure. The only certainty seems to be that right now many New Yorkers like them, and very much so. So while food trucks became an instant city fixture after surfacing in 2007, from a planning perspective they have in many ways remained in neutral, subject to a seemingly ad-hoc city policy and the attentions of intermittently unsympathetic business owners and neighborhood associations.

David Weber. Photo by Lucy Schaeffer.
"The new wave of branded trucks are selling differentiated food (falafel, kimchi tacos, lobster rolls, and schnitzel), so they can vend next to one another easily."

David Weber. Photo by Lucy Schaeffer.

Public discussion of the food truck's place in New York City has been growing, however, particularly within the past year. The New York Times is on it, having written about the topic at least two-dozen times within the past 90 days. In January, the New York City Food Truck Association was formed in attempt to hasten some sort of consistent policy from city administrators. 25 trucks now count themselves as members, many of whom are responsible for some of the city's longest lines. David Weber, the group's president, is cofounder of the Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which, in addition to its two restaurant locations, boasts four mobile units. (According to Weber, this model isn't rare—a third of the Association's members are also restaurant owners.)

Gelf caught up with Weber to talk turkey about food trucks. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Weber explains why trucks need an industry group, why we need sensible city planning, how social media forces responsible truck ownership, and much more.

Gelf Magazine: There has been a bit of a backlash against trucks, perhaps not by New York's unyielding and affectionate gourmands, but undeniably by restaurants and sandwich shops who have grown weary of losing the attention of midtown office workers. Are their frustrations—that they should have certain protections by virtue of paying rent and having to answer to community boards, while a truck can breeze in and out of a hood without much regard—reasonable?

David Weber: Food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants have a lot more in common than not. Senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association, Hudson Riehle, referred to food trucks as "mobile restaurant unit[s]" in the New York Times earlier this summer. I believe that "mobile restaurants" is an accurate representation of food trucks. The word "restaurant" comes from the French verb restaurer, "to restore." Whether they operate as a brick and mortar restaurant, a deli, a kiosk, a cart or a truck, I think all hospitality businesses are focused on the same core issues: to restore our guests with great service and great food.
Competition is the nature of all business, including the hospitality business. There are restaurants, delis, grocery stores, and pharmacies all catering to the same customers. Food trucks and restaurants are two different business models that each have different pros and cons.
About a third of the members of our organization have brick and mortar restaurants as well as mobile food trucks, so we are sensitive to the needs of restaurant owners. I think that in general food trucks tend to vend a reasonable distance from restaurants because it is prudent (because direct competition isn’t good for the food truck either) and respectful. Also, in NYC the law requires that food vendors park at least 20 feet away from the entrance of a restaurant.
Most restaurants pay rent in exchange for a stable space in a good location to conduct their business and a controlled environment to convey their brand and shelter customers from the elements. These are several advantages that restaurants have over trucks. Food trucks don't pay rent, but they pay a host of other costs that make up for that cost (including parking fees, fuel, depot rentals, commercial kitchen space, etc).

Gelf Magazine: At what point, assuming it isn't already, does the truck market become saturated?

David Weber: That really depends on your definition of the market and saturation. For New York City as a whole, I think the market is far from saturated. However, because the number of permits is capped, I am not sure we'll have the chance to ever find out. I do believe that certain neighborhoods within NYC are overcrowded.
Historically, trucks and carts sold relatively undifferentiated food (hot dogs, nuts, coffee, or soft serve ice cream), so they stayed spread out. Now that the new wave of branded trucks are selling differentiated food (falafel, kimchi tacos, lobster rolls, and schnitzel) they can vend next to one another easily. New food truck operators who don't understand the business and their impact on the street, often scour Twitter to find busiest place other trucks go so they can park. In the absence of any rules preventing overcrowding, this often means lots of trucks end up in the same place and overcrowd the neighborhood.
One of the key things we do as an organization is try to educate our members how to prospect for new locations where their business is a welcome part of the local community. Towards that end we have seminars to teach new members how to find locations and we assign all new members a mentor who is an established trucker who understands how to place their business within a community.

Gelf Magazine: What's the impetus for the New York City Food Truck Association. Why do trucks need representation?

David Weber: The nature of street vending has changed, and the rules which have been on the books since the turn of the century should change with it. We want to follow the rules; we just want fair and equitable laws we can follow. We are an association of small businesses that own and operate premium food trucks in NYC focused on innovation in hospitality, high quality food, and community development. The Association aims to reinvent food truck vending in a way that is beneficial to New Yorkers, New York City, food truck entrepreneurs, and their patrons.
We believe that food trucks have a lot to offer the city in terms of tax revenues, job growth, tourism, activating public space, and acting as an incubator for entrepreneurs to work out a business that they can grow into a brick and mortar establishment.

Gelf Magazine: How does the NYCFTA consider the corner hot dog/halal vendor? Because they don't seem to share the same affinity as your members do.

David Weber: We share many of the same priorities as food cart operators. However, the NYCFTA is focused on several issues pertaining specifically to food truck vendors in regards to community-food truck relations and street parking regulations. We have an official liaison to coordinate our efforts with the Street Vendor Project, which is an organization in NYC that represents many hot dog and halal vendors.

Gelf Magazine: Much of the food truck's prominence is a result of the collective fetal position the nation had adopted—the embrace of austerity that fed into the primacy of comfort food. But how do you sustain the novelty? Is that even a concern?

David Weber: I believe that the rise of the food truck in the public’s imagination is driven by a number of factors, including 1) developments in social media, which makes it easier to track trucks over space and time; 2) the economic downturn which made capital more scarce and the low startup costs of a food truck more tempting; and 3) the relatively rapid improvement in the overall quality and variety of food now served on trucks. However, I think that the predominant factor is that customers are generally looking for more value for their food dollar. Limited with the constraint of operating out of 60-80 square feet, food trucks are almost exclusively specialists, they do one thing and they do it very, very well. When you go to the waffle truck you get a best-in-breed waffle from someone who eats and breathes waffles. When you go to the schnitzel truck you get a best-in-breed schnitzel from someone who eats and breathes schnitzel.

Gelf Magazine: Between that and the city enforcing heretofore overlooked parking codes, something in the model has to give. I think, as [Midtown Lunch editor] Zach Brooks suggests, a big draw for trucks is their presumed antiestablishment ethos. How do you negotiate that rebel quotient with being a responsible member of a community?

David Weber: I don't believe being antiestablishment has anything to do with it. I think it is authenticity and value that drives an interest in food trucks. There is nothing to negotiate between being authentic and being responsible. I would argue that the city could improve the quality of street food to generate more tax revenue, create more jobs, stimulate tourism, and get even more small business owners who are passionate about food into this industry by making the rules surrounding street vending more consistent and more stable.
In fact it is the strong brands that these trucks have that in part forces them to be more responsible. If one of a hundred coffee carts leaves trash on the street, or one of a hundred hot dog carts pours oil down the sewer it would be the rare customer who could pick them out of a line-up. However, if there are any missteps by a branded truck, it is easily conveyed by Twitter, a blog, or Facebook. Social media cuts both ways and is helping hold these trucks to a higher standard.

Gelf Magazine: Ideally, how would the city "make the rules surrounding street vending more consistent and more stable"?

David Weber: Right now there are many laws pertaining to street vending that are inconsistent, ambiguous, or not well known. This leads to inconsistent enforcement. We're advocating for a suite of laws that promote a business environment that will foster innovation in mobile food vending and protect consumers. A simpler, streamlined suite of laws will be easier to follow and to enforce.

Gelf Magazine: What sorts of initiatives is NYCFTA currently working on?

David Weber: The association has identified several anachronistic laws and procedures that hinder revenue and job growth, creating unnecessary problems for both food trucks and city agencies, including outdated parking regulations for food trucks and overly onerous hiring requirements for food truck employees. Proposed [reforms] include:
1. Streamlining mobile food vending license applications: Work with NYC administration to develop a streamlined process for food truck employees to obtain mobile food vending license. Currently it takes 6-8 weeks to obtain a license; our goal is to reduce this period to two weeks.
2. Allow vending from metered parking: Work with NYC administration to establish a fair way to vend from metered parking or other locations. The majority of demand for mobile food options comes from central business districts where parking is metered.

Additional reporting by Max Lakin

Front-page image of Park Slope courtesy of Spodeworld's Flickr via Creative Commons

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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