By Laura Kusisto | Wall Street Journal
On Saturday, in the middle of a blizzard, college students waited for more than an hour in a line down the block. On Monday, Midtown office workers spent their lunch hours lining up in freezing temperatures.
The prize wasn’t a free television or tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. It was tempeh sandwiches, lentil burgers and vegan doughnuts.
The Cinnamon Snail, a vegan food truck that beat out all the city’s fine dining spots to be at one time its most highly rated food establishment on Yelp, is shutting down regular operations at the end of this week. The truck’s permit expired and the owners were unable to renew it.
Adam Sobel, the 32-year-old owner, said that meeting the expectations of clients who have risked frostbite for their lunch can be challenging.
“If the food isn’t the best thing in their life, they’re going to kill you on Yelp,” he said.
On Monday at lunch, many office workers said they came every week when the truck parked near Rockefeller Center. It was a break, they said, from otherwise dreary lunchtime offerings of microwaved leftovers and choose-your-own salads.
“It was a way to make Monday happy,” said Micol Hiatt, a 38-year-old employee at Nickelodeon, who stood in line for at least an hour on Monday. She planned to order the lemon grass five-spice seitan with curried cashews, Sichuan chili sauce and wasabi mayonnaise.
In February 2014, the food truck was the top New York City establishment and fourth in the U.S. on Yelp’s list of places to try based on the rating and number of reviews. To be sure, crowdsourced online reviews are just one way to measure quality.
Mr. Sobel said the city’s rules concerning food vending permits led to his decision to shut down the ‘Snail.’ The city issues 3,100 two-year permits to mobile food vendors, and the wait to get a new permit can take 15 to 20 years, according to advocates for the industry.
That has given rise to what amounts to an illegal market of permit holders selling permits to food vendors for significantly more than the $200 the city charges for trucks that make food on-site.
Mr. Sobel said that when his permit expired, he felt the terms the permit broker was offering seemed too good to be true.
The Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group, estimates that three-quarters of permits are obtained on the illegal market.
“We should have the best food trucks in America, but we don’t. The one thing holding us back is poor regulation,” said David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association.
A spokeswoman for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said Ms. Mark-Viverito supported changes in the permit system and that the council was reviewing options to create more opportunities for vendors.
Dan Biederman, president of two Midtown business improvement districts—the 34th Street Partnership and the Bryant Park Corp.—said the city should accept bids for the permits rather raising the cap on the number of permits. He said he was concerned about encouraging more mobile food joints to open. He said food carts—as opposed to food trucks—were unsightly, disruptive and took up valuable sidewalk space.
For his part, Mr. Sobel said that he planned to hang onto the truck and perhaps pull up at special events or serve food in New Jersey.
He began cooking as a teenager to prepare, better food for his now-wife, a vegan who he said was subsisting on canned soup and french fries.
While operating a restaurant in the city can be a struggle, Mr. Sobel said operating a food truck had its own challenges. He pays about $7,000 a month for a kitchen space in Brooklyn, where bakers work all night to prepare the next day’s pastries.
Mr. Sobel’s inbox has been flooded with information about spaces for a brick-and-mortar operation. He said he was interested in renting a space once he has taken time off to think. He also has a cookbook coming out in May called “Street Vegan.”
The recipes may dispel the wishful thinking of anyone who has tried one of Mr. Sobel’s vanilla bourbon crème brûlée doughnuts and perhaps has mused whether its lack of animal products made it somehow healthy.
“It’s deep-fried dough,” he said. “Even though it’s vegan, it’s deep-fried dough.”