Vendrification: Street Food Streetfights

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Media coverage of New York’s food cart mania — particularly the surge of upscale food carts and trucks — has been building for months. This week’s “Under $25” column in the New York Times is the fourth cart-related piece in the NYT just in the past month. We haven’t even reached the apex of the street food season, climaxing in the fifth annual Vendy Awards, which Mario Batali has called “the Oscars of food for the real New York.” But that doesn’t mean the old-school hot dog & shwarma guys are excited about their glitzy new Twitter-fied competition.

In a city accustomed to gentrification, perhaps this new phenomenon could be described as “vendrification,” with more expensive, higher-tech carts and trucks sweeping in and shaking up the culinary terrain of the streets. Predictably, this shift has led to some tensions between the “traditional” vendors and the newer-style sellers, who often use heavily decorated trucks, rotating seasonal offerings, and regular Twitter tweets advertising their current whereabouts to draw in customers. For the kebab and hot dog vendors, who often stay in the same city-assigned location day after day, it becomes a question of market infringement. In late June, an exchange over turf outside the Metropolitan Museum between the fancy food truck Street Sweets and a few other vendors grew so heated that police were called to the scene. And the Schnitzel & Things truck has endured confrontations both with halal vendors and a Mister Softee truck.

Vendy nominee Lev Ekster, whose CupcakeStop truck has garnered lots of press and a loyal following with over 40 flavors of cupcakes, admits there is tension. “It’s a competitive business,” he said in an email through his PR representative — yes, this cupcake truck has a publicist. “Old school vendors believe they own a location just because they’ve been there for a longer period of time. They’re intimated by the newer vendors and think they’re losing sales as a result of their presence.” While he says that in choosing locations for his truck, which opened for business at the beginning of the summer, he always takes into consideration other vendors who work in the area, he too has had run-ins. “When we moved in the Flatiron District,” he recounts, “we had a problem with a certain shish kebab vendor.”

Over time, as Ekster made 5th Avenue and 22nd Street one of his regular Twitter-leaked locations, he says that the hard feelings subsided. But he does see a discernable difference between his business and the old-school carts. “Hot dog and pretzel vendors make impulse sales and may never see that customer ever again. Those vendors are expendable, and it’d be hard to distinguish one from another.”

Your corner hot dog guy might not agree — and he probably doesn’t consider himself “expendable.” With the growing competition among the ever-increasing number of carts, what old and new school vendors have in common is this desire to distinguish themselves from the rest of the market. However, for Ekster’s fellow Vendy nominee, “King of Falafel” Freddy Zeidaies, it’s the ways he differs from the newer generation of vendors that sets him apart.

Established on the same busy corner in Astoria for the last eight years, he is confident in his staying power. “My customers,” he says, “know I’ll show up every day. I’ll be there cold or hot.” While the increased media attention to his cart through the Vendy nomination (his second) has brought people in from Manhattan to sample his wares, he doesn’t rely on trend-driven foodies to drive his sales. The majority of his customers still come from the neighborhood, drawn in, he believes, by the personal service he offers. “I give people the full experience,” he says. “I do a dance. Tell a joke.”

This kind of attention is what he feels differentiates him from the new guys. “They’ll be around for a while and then what?” says Zeidaies. “If you don’t have steady customers, Twitter is not going to do you any good. If you’re not there for the second day, it’s not going to work.” The same is true of the heavily decorated carts and trucks versus the more traditional variety. “It’s what’s inside. Not everything is shining gold,” he says. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. You got to read what’s inside, and it’s the same thing for food carts.”