Long Island, NY: Feeding Frenzy in Montauk

The Ditch Witch truck (pictured here in August 2010) and the Beach Dog Cart are in a turf battle with newer food vendors bidding to do business. Mimi Ritzen Crawford for the Wall Street Journal

By SPENCER E. ANTE | The Wall Street Journal

The Ditch Witch truck (pictured here in August 2010) and the Beach Dog Cart are in a turf battle with newer food vendors bidding to do business. Mimi Ritzen Crawford for the Wall Street Journal

The summer season has ended in Montauk, but a debate is heating up over one of the Long Island beach community’s most contentious issues: its seaside lunch options.

Two longtime truck vendors—Ditch Witch and Beach Dog Cart—have had to make room for a pair of upstarts that many locals fear will end up ousting their old favorites. For many residents and summertime loyalists, what’s at stake is more than a decent turkey and pesto sandwich; it’s the character of the place itself.

The battle began after the Town of East Hampton, which includes Montauk, heard complaints in previous years that there were too many vendors vying for the few spots at the entrances to the popular Ditch Plains beach.

The town devised a public bidding process for permits. Just before Memorial Day, word got out that the town planned to boot Ditch Witch and Beach Dog Cart.

Ditch Witch (pictured in August 2010) is popular with beachgoers. Mimi Ritzen Crawford for the Wall Street Journal

The news didn’t go over well. The bidding formula weighed 40% of the final score on how much rent a bidder promised to pay the town, and the winners were relative newbies Montaco and Turf Lobster Rolls.

One longtime summer resident, Christian Iooss, quickly launched a protest on Facebook with a “Save the Ditch Witch” page that drew more than 1,000 followers and hundreds of comments in just 12 hours.

“To me, it was another step in the wrong direction,” said Mr. Iooss, 34 years old, whose parents own a house near the Ditch Plains beach. “The town went for the money.”

The town soon backed down, saying it had not given bidders a detailed breakdown of the bidding criteria, and allowed all four vendors to do business. But officials still expect to develop a new process over the upcoming months—one that stalwarts fear will set an expensive minimum bid that’s affordable only to more moneyed operators.

“We will keep the law but we will make the process work better,” said Theresa Quigley, deputy supervisor for the East Hampton Town Board.

“Of course, I am worried,” said John Bogetti, 69, a retired police officer who has been selling hot dogs, candy and other snacks from the Beach Dog Cart for 24 years. “It seems like the town bends over backward for the Montaco.”

“I have no guarantees for next year,” said Lili Adams, the owner of Ditch Witch, a local favorite that has been catering to beachgoers for 17 years.

For some Montauk fans, the food truck war is a troubling sign that their laid-back surf town is being overrun by affluent out-of-towners. In 2008, the Surf Lodge—a hotel, restaurant and bar—opened and attracted what many locals derided as a very Hamptons-like crowd. The fears were stoked this summer when a backer of the Surf Lodge helped to open Ruschmeyer’s, a lakeside resort with lodging, a beer garden and a restaurant run by the owner’s of New York’s trendy Fat Radish.

“Either we figure out how to get business that is not tourism or we figure out how to balance the issues,” Ms. Quigley said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

During a sunny day in the last week of July, while children frolicked in the water and surfers paddled out to catch some waves, a long line formed in front of the Ditch Witch. Down the shore, a few people waited in front of Turf Lobster Rolls as the 27-year-old proprietor, Zachary Lynd, piled chunks of shellfish into a roll.

Mr. Lynd staked $30,000—his entire life savings—on an Airstream trailer that he converted into a food truck. The project also doubled as Mr. Lynd’s master’s thesis for the School of Visual Arts. He sells lobster rolls for $16, and a key lime tart and fruit salad for $5.

“I could be rebidding against a whole other competitive landscape,” said Mr. Lynd, who will stay open part-time through October. “I very well could lose it.

He said he believes he had been unfairly portrayed as the town villain.

“The project blew up before it even got started,” said Mr. Lynd.

He said he received threats that his trailer would be set on fire, washed out to sea or tipped over. Protesters threatened to not only boycott the new food truck, but to form a human chain around the area to prevent anyone other than Ditch Witch’s Ms. Adams from getting in.

But Mr. Lynd took it as a challenge. He worked the local community like a politician, making it known that he was a regular guy trying to break into the hospitality business. After negotiating a deal with East Hampton and a local condominium allowing him to set up at the end of a dirt lot at Ditch Plains, he opened on July 1.

“I was just one person, and it was not some big company trying to buy its way into Montauk,” said Mr. Lynd, a native of Texas who has a degree in graphic design from the University of Colorado.

Mars Ostarello, 30, the owner of Montaco, said she would love to continue doing business next year—her third summer—but is worried the minimum bid may be $10,000, which she considers unreasonable. “There is a need for more food vendors,” she said. “I would have to believe and hope I would be awarded a spot.”

Ms. Ostarello said she’ll continue to do catering if she loses out. “This is the Montaco’s home,” she said. “This is what she was designed for.”

For Mr. Bogetti of the Beach Dog Cart, the situation is more worrisome. His main sources of income are the food truck and Social Security checks. The truck also provides jobs for his two granddaughters, who are working their way through college.

“After 25 years to be out in the cold,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Ms. Adams’s food truck is also her primary source of income. She had been cooking in area kitchens for years before deciding to strike out on her own in 1994. The Ditch Witch is helping put her son Grant, whose name graces the turkey and pesto sandwich, through college.

Sitting on a bench in front of her truck this summer, Ms. Adams said she fears that New York City restaurateurs trying to cash in on Montauk’s surging hipness could snag her spot next year.

“A lot is changing in Montauk,” she said. “We know as a group we are looking at the end.”