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Chef Mario Batali recently called the sixth annual Vendy Awards “the Oscars of food for real New York”—a shout out to both the New Yorkers who can’t afford to spend more than $10 on a meal, and the New Yorkers who make their living cooking food in generator-powered portable structures, rain or shine.
Street food plays an integral part in the diet of the average Columbian. The Wafels & Dinges truck has recently become a Morningside mainstay. Themed trucks have been targeting younger demographics by achieving a bloggable balance of zany names, such as the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck’s specialty, the “salty pimp,” quality ingredients, and Facebook and Twitter exposure. CC alum Jerome Chang founded the DessertTruck with the express purpose of serving gourmet desserts to young people who may not be able to afford them at a restaurant. But money-tight students with strong stomachs have and will always have love affairs with gyros and street hot dogs.
It’s no secret that gourmet food trucks are New York’s newest edible it-thing, while immigrant-run street carts have long fed the hungry and busy. But it’s interesting to see the interaction between these two radically different classes of entrepreneurs, no more readily apparent than at the streetless Governors Island.
This year’s Vendys were held on Sept. 25 on the last scalding hot day of summer. A youthful crowd wandered a field full of street carts sampling premade delicacies, while families sat under trees, sunburnt in food comas. Line length and stomach-capacity predictions were overheard as attendees tried to make the most of the hefty $85 admission. A few unknown and mostly ignored Brooklyn chillwave bands played, while free beverages were provided by Brooklyn Brewery and GuS Grown-up Soda.
Written by Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project, the opening letter of the event’s pamphlet read: “There are more than 10,000 street vendors in New York City—hot dog vendors, flower vendors, book vendors, street artists, and many others. They are small business people, struggling to make ends meet. Most are immigrants and people of color. They work long hours under harsh conditions, asking for nothing more than a chance to sell their goods on the public sidewalk.”
The Eye has previously covered the struggles of the Street Vendor Project, an offshoot of the Urban Justice Center, to make vending a more viable option for immigrant and poor vendors that have trouble navigating the city’s unnecessarily complicated and unfair bureaucracy. This introduction painted a compelling and accurate picture of the majority of the New York vendors, for sure; however, an unspoken contradiction seemed omnipresent at the event.
Yes, street vending is often a necessary economic first step for low income New Yorkers to make ends meet, but what is the face of the Vendy Awards? Not the everyday gyro and Halal stands with their tin carts, decorated with overly saturated pictures and big block lettering, but rather, the professionally-designed, politically-infused, and Twitter-reliant gimmick trucks that get more-than-adequate face time on Grub Street and Eater.
Granted, there is immigrant representation among the non-dessert trucks. El Rey del Sabor and The King of Falafel and Shawarma, this year’s Vendy Cup winner and People’s Choice Awards winner, are both pre-craze, immigrant-run ethnic food carts that produce inexpensive and quality specialities from their home countries. While the King of Falafel, Fares Zeideia, parks in the relatively obscure Astoria, Queens and Rosa and Vilio Cardoso of El Rey de Sabor have been selling chalupas in Midtown for over 20 years.
But at the Vendys, long lines belonged to the Kelvin Natural Slush Co. and the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, two recently founded frozen treat trucks that rely on unconventional flavors and social media buzz to justify high prices as they park at key spots around the city. The Zapatista star-studded Guerrilla Ice Cream truck also generated hype with its promise of “Revolutionary Flavor.” The nearby standing falafel cart and chalupa cart got little attention by comparison. There is an unspoken question: are the craft beer-connoisseurs and individuals that need a justification for their soda to be “grown-up” at the beverage station the same customers that pile on sauerkraut at hotdog street carts and take leaps of faith with used grills in their everyday eating habits? But more importantly, does this matter?
After all, the disparity between entrepreneurs in the two movements is very real. Not only are the founders of newer, theme-reliant trucks neither poor, nor immigrants that are completely financially reliant on vending, they’re frequently Ivy League-educated. Chang is a Columbia College alumnus while this year’s dessert winner, Alex Rein, has an undergraduate degree from University of Pennsylvania and only two months of vending experience.
Rein led a successful career in corporate law before starting Kelvin Natural Slush Co. with a silent partner from his firm. Joyride, a new truck that recently parked in front of Lerner with what the founders hoped would be a buzz-worthy selection of yogurt, coffee, and caffeinated yogurt, is also the brainchild of three Ivy-hailing friends: Adam Belanich, David Belanich, and Lev Brie, two Ph.D. candidates and another academic professional.
Rein speculates on the proliferation of Ivy grads in the street food business, “I think it’s a great market, I think that we see that it can be built, that it’s growing, and there’s potential. … It is kind of bizarre.”
Despite past media coverage, Chang reveals that the tension between food carts is more often than not interpersonal. “I think that if you talk to enough truck operators, you’ll learn that any one who has any trouble is in some way inviting that trouble,” Chang says, stating that the famous turf war article in the New York Times had mostly to do with one particular individual that wasn’t present at the Vendys this year.
In general, the attitude of gourmet food vendors is respectful towards less well-off predecessors. “I think that ultimately you need to be respectful of the people who have been doing this before you. A lot of these Halal food trucks, they’ve been on the same street corner for 20 years,” says Rein.“If someone’s been on a street corner for several years and we’ve been around for two months, who are we to come in and say ‘This is our spot’?”
“I’m fairly certain that there is [some tension] but it’s not necessarily something you see being acted out. … Every team has its inner divisions,” says Peter De Vries, an advocate of the Street Vendor Project. He adds: “At the end of the day we’re fighting the same battles.”
Speculations abound over a suggested foot-in-the-door dynamic at play between the two classes of food carts—individuals who had never considered street food might experience it first from a wealthier truck, and then feel more comfortable turning to the poorer, immigrant ones. “It’s nice to have this as an initial experience, to demystify the whole experience,” De Vries says.
“I can only imagine that … it’s legitimized street vending as a quality business,” Chang says.
Surely, the popularity of trend food carts has brought attention to the Vendys as a fundraiser—one that benefits primarily immigrant vendors. “For something like the Vendys, where it was a fundraiser and they raised $100,000, there’s a lot of benefit to having these newer trucks, to generally have these trucks around for their popularity,” Rein says. “I think it will help in easing some of the restrictions on food trucks, which will benefit everyone.” And though the newer, more popular trucks generate publicity for the Street Vendor Project, they are also less likely to utilize the project’s services.
Rein says of the Street Vendor Project, “We don’t really look to them for legal help because we do have the means to take care of ourselves.”
The problem—if it can be considered one—lies in the Street Vendor Project’s representation of the demographic it supports. The event essentially generates supports for low-income food vendors using Ivy league-educated entrepreneurs jumping on a hot trend as poster children. At least the immigrant vending activists and ice cream guerrillas are fighting on the same side—for now.
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