Saveur Seeking: Food Trucks vs. New York City [video]

By Neil Ferguson |

In a special edition of Saveur Seeking, Neil goes to the NYC Food Truck Rally to feast on delicious foods and learn more about the New York food truck culture.

I’ve visited New York City numerous times my whole life. If there is one thing about New York that has always stood out for me, it is the medley of smells one encounters when walking the streets. Don’t get me wrong, much of New York’s smell consists of sewage, trash, and exhaust from the never-ending flow of dense traffic. However, amidst the foul odor, there is one particular scent that upon making contact with the nostrils will make one salivate: street food.

“The current laws, which have been on the books since the 60s, apply to the type of food vendors who sell pretzels and hot dogs on the sidewalks, but make it extremely difficult for the new wave of food trucks to do business.”

Hebrew National hot dogs, halal meat, knish and roasted nuts among other things have been sold on the sidewalks of New York for what seems like forever. Street food is perfectly suited for the hustle and bustle environment of New York where people are always on the move. As a child, I would fall in to a zombie-like trance the second I smelled roasted cashews or gyro meat wafting through the air. I would nag my mother and pull her hand aggressively towards the silver-paneled food cart with the blue and yellow Sabrett umbrella hovering over the busy sidewalk.

For anyone who has ever lived in or visited New York City, street food is an accepted and welcomed institution that feels as much a part of the city as skyscrapers and taxicabs. So why is it that the new wave of mobile food vendors are in a legal battle with a city that does not seem to support them at all?

Along with Austin, Portland and Los Angeles, New York has recently seen the explosion of mobile food vending that consists of more than the traditional street foods that have been around forever. Now there are hundreds of food trucks selling delicious, creative food at affordable prices (by New York standards). In addition to the classic street food staples, one can now find almost any type of food ranging from dumplings to lobster rolls to Belgian waffles, to name a few. The variety and creativity of the food options is very similar to Austin and Portland.

When I visited New York recently I was lucky enough to see many of NYC’s food trucks on full display at the NYC Food Truck Rally, which happens the third Sunday of every month in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. The idea behind the event is to give food trucks a chance to gather in a place where they will not be hassled and are almost guaranteed to sell lots of food to hungry people. The event is also intended to promote food trucks to the public.

At first glance it seemed to me that New Yorkers love and support food trucks (which they do) and that the city sanctions them (which they don’t). Every truck at the event had a long line with eager customers. When I spoke to David Weber, head of the New York City Food Truck Association I learned that there is a different side to every story.

According to Weber, the food trucks of New York have faced many challenges in their fight to gain acceptance by the city. The current laws, which have been on the books since the 60s, apply to the type of food vendors who sell pretzels and hot dogs on the sidewalks, but make it extremely difficult for the new wave of food trucks to do business. The law prohibits the sale of merchandise from metered parking spots, which is typically the ideal spot for food trucks to set up.

Weber and the NYCFTA believe that food is not “merchandise” because each item is individually made to order and can’t be replicated for the person behind them in line. Unfortunately a recent court case ruled otherwise, and the old law is to remain on the books for now. As the result, many food trucks are forced to jump around to different locations on a day-to-day basis. They will often set up at one location only to be kicked out by the police and forced to move somewhere else. This system is not only a pain for the vendors, but it makes it difficult to acquire regular customers.

New York’s food truck lovers are frustrated by the way the system works. Some people told me that they would eat at food trucks all the time if they actually knew where they were. One of the interesting side effects of the system is the role played by social networking sites, particularly Twitter and Facebook. Most trucks use Twitter, because they can post frequent updates on their location and let customers know if they had to move. Sometimes they will even post clues without giving their location away entirely. While interesting, this system shuts out people who don’t use Twitter and Facebook, thus losing the trucks lots of potential business.

After visiting the NYC Food Truck Rally, I realized that the public seems to want food trucks, but the city does not know how to deal with this new style of food vendors. With cities such as Austin and Portland as their model, the food trucks of New York are driving forward and letting the public know that they are here to stay and more than just a trend.