An article caught my attention tonight that caused me for the first time to feel like I should write a letter to the editor at the New York Times.
Then I just got lazy and figured I should write it here.
I should add some disclaimers before I get into it.
I am not a food-truck owner, I am not a small food “brick-and-mortar” establishment owner, I have no “interest” in any restaurants, nor any experience in the business or economics of food-based businesses in New York City.
I am simply what you would call a chowhound, an eater, a chubby person in this city.
And this chubby person thinks that the proprietor of a much-more admired, established and relevant blog (Midtown Lunch) happens, in this case to be wrong.
Zach Brooks, who runs Midtown Lunch, wrote the aforementioned article as an op-ed in the New York Times today concerning the legality of food trucks in New York City and his proposed solution to the increasing conflicts between building owners, the police department and food trucks. The article is interesting from the perspective of someone interested in down-midscale food in New York City, or merely even anyone interested in having a good lunch.
But this is why it’s wrong.
Zach posits, correctly, that the tenuous legality of food trucks and carts in New York City has led to innovation– and it has. When we look at the broad spectrum of the food available in New York City, increasingly we are seeing the sort of daring from food trucks, among the lowest/cheapest level of meal available, that was once only imaginable on a high-end scale, where fusion or innovation is more celebrated as cost necessitates the development of a “new” experience, as do auteur chefs.
This is because as humans we enjoy homeostasis. Our lunches (which are the primary dominion of the food trucks) are usually things of habit to most of us, defined by where we work, a limited number of options and, indeed, the very nature of the lunch spot having to cater to a broad range of tastes in order to survive, thus the arch success of places like Au Bon Pain/Europan Cafe/Hale and Hearty which can offer a spectrum of cuisines (none great-ly) but also familiar items like customizable salads or sandwiches.
By contrast, food trucks and carts, by nature of their mobility, allow us as office dwellers, as creatures of habit, to indulge in tastes that we don’t always want. Sure, a crazy man like me might consider, for instance, Dijon Chicken w/Mushrooms and Couscous and a side spring salad from the Bistro Truck as comfort food, but most people are not foodies, they enjoy the routine of their meal or at least prefer it as a non-distraction. For these people, the best food trucks allow them to treat themselves to something different, to expand their palette on a limited basis, while reciprocally, these customers allow a food truck/cart to not have to cater to broad tastes, to own the narrowness and specificity of their fresh-made Sri Lankan dosas, their crisply-cubed souvlaki, their kimchi bacon fried rice burritos. Without their mobility and yes, without the precarious nature of working in the food truck business, these trucks may never have developed into the interesting creations they are.
But, in his piece, Zach Brooks argues that we should not legalize or rent spaces to food trucks, as those rents (presumably contingent on the area) might breed homogeny of the same sort that those “brick-and-mortar” rent payers must face. While I agree that we should not necessarily “regulate” food trucks by taxing them like cigarettes, how about just decriminalization, like many states have done for another tenuously legal product sold on the streets: marijuana?
Zach’s argument against such a thing is that it’s “unfair” to the businesses that pay the crazy rents in the neighborhoods food trucks frequent (like Hudson Square or Park Ave, for instance) and that somehow they can’t compete with the food trucks parked outside. The truth is, for every person who’s going to want to eat that kimchi taco, that “bar pie”, that schnitzel, there’s going to be that person who doesn’t want to wait in the insane line in the insane heat, that person who like SO MANY of my friends (annoyingly) doesn’t really give a damn about lunch. They pack their own or get something from a deli. My dad just buys a yogurt and apple (“Just an apple some days!” He brags). Food trucks don’t kill businesses, businesses kill businesses or capitalism if you will.
So here’s my solution: let my food trucks go. If you’re a cop, stop harassing them. If you’re a business owner, sell better food. Just because there’s a new truck in the neighborhood doesn’t mean that it is better or worse than anything else (see: anywhere selling a hot dog, numerous roach-coach gyro trucks). The food truck business is filled with its own perils (transmission/AC-problems, truck maintenance, flat tires, car accidents, you name it) and if you don’t believe so, check out my friend Doug Quint’s adventures on twitter with his Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and his every day struggles to just get the truck out on the street. If there need to be rules about hours that things can go on, if there needs to be oversight, form an organization, add a tax. It’s what New York City does best or at least most frequently.
But the more probable solution than any need for either the continued harassment and heckling of New York food trucks and carts, or the payment of exorbitant rents is just the need for everyone to chill the hell out and enjoy. As Zach says, we are living in a golden age of NYC street food. The people who run those trucks should be able to do their business. The people who follow them on Twitter like obsessive nerds (guilty) can maybe get a Coke at the deli next to the truck. And everyone else not obsessed with food can just live their lives normally, happy for the options and maybe, just maybe discovering something new they like to eat.
Anywhere, there’s my thousand or so words on the subject.