The carts roll out.
It happens every morning in nearly every city in America.
The parade of vendors, pushcarts, and food trucks sets out to arrange themselves on sidewalks, street corners, and parking lots where they tempt us with the promise an inexpensive meal or treat.
In the last few years, street food became a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Vendors swapped withered hot dogs for pastured-beef burgers on brioche buns, and the jangly tune of Mr. Softee was replaced by twitter tweets announcing the arrival of the cupcake truck.
We’ve seen street food transform the face of public space in urban centers, and watched food trucks become the darlings of the food world, but it’s all a bit of a mystery:
How do they get their spots? Does the vendor take a bathroom break—and wash his hands afterward? Where do the carts go at night?
Who owns this corner?
A city will broadly designate vending locations and times, but generally the details are left to the vendors themselves. Vendors recognize a moral claim to a particular spot, usually based on seniority or even inheritance. If a newcomer doesn’t know the etiquette or doesn’t respect the claim, the others will muscle him out by getting there earlier or underselling him. Occasionally more extreme turf wars break out, though more often pitting the bricks-and-mortar retailers against the trucks and carts.
Mixing food, money-handling, and street grime.
Health code standards vary by city, although refrigeration and a water supply are always required when cooking is involved. New York City has the most stringent rules, requiring street vendors to adhere to the same sanitation standards as restaurants, including regular inspections and fines for unsanitary conditions that are equal to those levied on restaurants. While safety is tightly controlled, quality can vary widely, just as it can for restaurants.
Home is where the hose is.
Some vendors will roll home, some go stash their carts in self-storage facilities, others to rented garage spaces, complete with ‘cart showers.’ Sometimes these spaces are inspected, sometimes not. Fines for violations can be as high as $1,000, which presumably keeps them in line.
The elements of the bathroom run.
A successful pit stop requires both a sense of camaraderie with a nearby vendor, and a public restroom or sympathetic shopkeeper.
The alternative is to close the umbrella, grab the cash box, and hope to return before a theft or a ticket. Unattended carts and trucks are treated as a serious safety violation because of the risk of tampering and contamination, and can even result in a license suspension. Health departments haven’t said where and when, exactly, that they expect vendors to go.
If street vending is not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder, the same can be said of street food patronage.
Sidewalk dining is cheap and casual, hurried and messy. There are squirt bottle condiments, flimsy plastic cutlery, and the ambiance of bus fumes, car alarms, and weather. There are also no dress codes or reservations required, and the chance to try authentic and exotic dishes. And when you and your fellow citizens cop a squat on a bench or curb, it can be a communal, democratic experience with its own intrinsic charm.
Roaming Hunger has interactive maps to guide you to the cuisines and routes of food trucks in your city.