"The first rule of Vendor Fight Club is you don't talk about Vendor Fight Club."
What's it like becoming a street vendor? "You get fat and develop arthritis," said Freddy Zeidaies, aka "the King of Falafel," who's built a little kingdom of street meat-loving fans in Queens for almost a decade. Last night, he sat in the audience as a panel of five people (who care and know a lot about street food) debated the future of sidewalk cuisine at the Astor Center in Manhattan.
Does it have to be from a cart or truck? Any old contraption? Is the recent boom a direct outcome of a nosediving economy?
Not necessarily, pointed out Kim Ima of the Treats Truck. She hatched her dessert-on-wheels business three years ago, before the financial world officially went to smithereens, but admits the downturn probably helped her business and sparked other vendors to crop up. But just because she has an active Twitter feed doesn't mean she's rolling in the big bucks. Fellow panelist Sean Basinsky, who founded the Street Vendor Project as part of the Urban Justice Center in 2001 noted that an average vendor is happy to make $100 a day—that's about $25,000 a year before taxes.
Like farmers, street vendors are very affected by lousy weather, and even when it's not gross outside, they have to hustle during a few prime hours (usually lunchtime). For Thomas Degeest of Wafels & Dinges (also sitting in the audience), a good chunk of business doesn't even come from the normal street crowd—it's from catering parties and office meetings.
Finances aside, vendors also have to deal with turf wars. Zach Brooks of Midtown Lunch, another panelist, watches the sidewalk skirmishes between New York City vendors on a daily basis. As he said last week when he reported that two ice cream vendors got into a fist fight, "the first rule of Vendor Fight Club is you don't talk about Vendor Fight Club." The cops showed up to the scene followed by an ambulance.
So what's the utopian vision for a happy world of street food? Ima hasn't thrown any punches, but she's also worked very hard to cultivate relationships with everyone on her "blocks"—the delivery truck drivers dropping off packages, the ice cream vendors (her "Greek uncles"), the local office workers, and so on. Basinsky believes the answer involves issuing more permits and opening up more streets. Right now in New York City, many blocks are off-limits and some people have to resort to black market schemes to snatch permits.
Many of us have daydreamed happy thought bubbles about developing a sidewalk menu, maybe even paired with compostable sporks. But even without traditional start-up costs and rent, the entrepreneurial path to becoming a vendor isn't easy. Each panelist last night (along with vendors in the audience) repeated: nobody should go into this for the money.
But if you do have the passion (and you're OK with weight gain, sore knees, and a bad back) it is possible to develop a valuable brand in a niche market and earn a coveted place in the hearts of serious eaters.