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Snap Food Truck at the LentSpace food rally on Sept. 19.
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A few vegans, a waffle vendor, and a security guard walk into a parking lot. This improbable scenario isn’t the set-up to a punchline—it’s a typical Tuesday at LentSpace, a fenced-off lot at the intersection of Varick and Canal streets in Hudson Square.
Owned by the Trinity Wall Street church and operated by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, LentSpace is a textbook example of the renewed urban spaces that have become increasingly widespread in New York over the past decade. Like the High Line park in Chelsea or the Dekalb Market in Fort Greene, LentSpace has taken over an unused plot of land and opened it to the public—acid-green picnic tables, wooden benches, potted plants, and all.
It seems only fitting that LentSpace is also home to another New York trend: Every Tuesday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., a motley crowd of three to five food trucks lines the lot, offering an eclectic variety of dishes, from classic street foods like hot dogs and falafel to more unusual options like vegan wraps and Korean barbecue tacos.
Known as food truck rallies, events like the Lent- Space gathering are nearly ubiquitous across the city: the New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA), which organizes the LentSpace rally, also hosts a number of these chow-down collectives in Long Island City, at the World Financial Center, and even inside Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh office building. On Sept. 15, the eighth annual “Vendy Awards” brought twelve finalist trucks and carts to Governors Island to com- pete for the title of New York’s best street food vendor, with top honors going to Piaztlan Authentic Mexican Food and Melt Bakery. Though not officially organized rallies, areas like Union Square and the Flatiron District host up to a dozen trucks on any given weekday.
Rallies are just one sign of the surging popularity of food trucks in major cities across the country. Once not-so-affectionately dubbed “roach coaches”—known more for cheap, straightforward preparations of halal food or street tacos than sleek design or inventive cuisine—food trucks have enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past five years, gaining both cultural capital and an expanding fan base. According to David Weber, co-founder of the popular Rickshaw Dumpling truck and president of the NYCFTA, food trucks’ newfound popularity can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the cost of the business and the economic environment.
“I think that for entrepreneurs, part of the reason the resurgence of food trucks came starting in 2008, 2009 is it’s closely correlated with the economic downturn,” Weber says. “There becomes a scarcity of capital. It’s a lot harder to pull together a million dollars to open a new restaurant in Manhattan, but you might be able to put together a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, two hundred thousand dollars to open a food truck.”
The Mexico Blvd truck is an example of a business bred by economic consequence. After experiencing a layoff—and general weariness of the service side of the restaurant industry—Jordi Loaeza and his father Jorge co-founded the enterprise. “When we started looking at the numbers ... everyone loved the project, and everyone loved the idea, but it’s just a lot of money to drop on a restaurant you don’t even know is going to work,” Loaeza says. “We couldn’t open a restaurant, but I found out about the food truck phenomenon, and I told my dad, ‘Let’s do this, let’s test it out this way. Get up a whole bunch of area and see what our clients are, maybe for a restaurant in the future, so we can be successful.’”
In the same enterprising spirit, many owners don’t see the food truck as the end of the road—especially after establishing a loyal customer base. Many trucks now operate brick-and-mortar sites in addition to their mobile menus. Founded in 2008, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream currently runs stores in Boerum Hill, Greenpoint, and the East Village. Other trucks that have expanded their business into storefronts include the Treats Truck, Mexicue, and LentSpace regular Kimchi Taco. “Entrepreneurs have been looking at food trucks to incubate a new business and get it started, and, from that business, grow,” Weber says. “Working out the brand, working out the kinks in the operation, getting a foothold, and then growing ... It’s a great way to hone a business.”
Naturally, owning a business comes with its perks as well as its challenges, and the latter are more often than not imposed by the city. Since 1965, for example, New York City has banned mobile vendors from selling merchandise in metered parking—a law that made perfect sense when metered parking was still a rarity, but which now prevents food trucks from legally setting up shop throughout a majority of the city. Weber founded the NYCFTA to lobby against such regulatory obstacles in January 2011; the organization also operates as an advocacy group, working to ease restrictions and licensing regulations on New York mobile vendors. The NYCFTA now boasts 43 member trucks, including Mexico Blvd and Kimchi Taco.
At the end of the day, food trucks will always offer a high-quality alternative to expensive and tax-inclusive restaurants—which explains why the group congregated by the trucks consists mainly of twenty- and thirty-somethings wearing jeans and tailored button-downs, the de facto uniform of nearby tech companies.
Darren Wong, who works at a social ad agency, visits LentSpace three or four times a month, and puts plainly the case for food trucks: “They usually have better food than normal places. I like choices. I like variety. Also, I can just get in and out, so I don’t have to go through a whole restaurant crowd.”
For us of working out of Morningside, Hudson Square is probably too far for a lunchtime commute. Luckily, several well-established food trucks, including Wafels & Dinges, Coolhaus, and the alumni-owned Korilla BBQ, acknowledge the money-making potential of a college campus, and regularly make stops at Columbia. These new food trucks are trendy, inventive, and affordable—but most importantly, what college student wouldn’t prefer rib-eye to ramen?
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