If all goes according to plan, Madison will soon have its first nonprofit to support food carts, to be called Let's Eat Out!
Christine Ameigh of the Slide cart is the prime organizing force and the group's executive director; Jessica Wartenweiler of Curd Girl is associate director.
A brainstorming session at 100state on Jan. 15 brought out community organizers, food activists, cart operators and would-be food cart owners to come up with a list of goals. The group had its first board meeting at the end of January, and Ameigh filed the papers for federal nonprofit status. (The seven-member board still has two slots open to interested parties, says Ameigh.)
Let's Eat Out! is the new incarnation of what began as a loose affiliation of carts that first banded together in the fall of 2012 as Let's Eat Out Atwood. As the group expanded its locations, it became Let's Eat Out Madison.
Now, membership will be formalized ($125/year), and benefits will include maximized opportunities for vending; group promotional efforts; a partnership with REAP Food Group to connect with farmers and gain access to good local produce at reduced prices; bulk purchasing of eco-friendly containers; and eventually group health insurance rates.
Ameigh is working with Project Kinect, a local social change consultant, on developing the nonprofit.
There are about a dozen such nonprofits across the U.S., most of which initially formed to combat restrictive regulations on mobile food businesses and to help owners negotiate licensing. But Let's Eat Out! will focus on advocating for food carts, creating more opportunities for sales and fostering connections with the community. In Madison, the city is "more of a partner" than in some places, says Ameigh.
An important action item is to start fundraising to support a cart internship program in partnership with Briarpatch Youth Services, Ameigh says. Training will cover safety and extend to cart owners as well, with instruction on how to effectively work with teens.
Let's Eat Out! will be the exclusive food vendor for the MadCity Bazaar urban pop-up flea market (first and third weekends, May-September, in the parking lot of the Fiore Shopping Center at First Street and East Washington Avenue). It will act as a central contact point for catering jobs, and will coordinate vending at some summer festivals, including a music series it will organize at Burr Jones Park.
The Monday-Thursday evening dinners at neighborhoods across Madison and in surrounding towns will be set up so that carts will rotate among neighborhoods from week to week (to maximize variety for diners); the number of vendors at any spot will be capped in accordance with attendance, so those that are there will be more likely to turn a profit.
The group is also meeting with the city of Madison about the possibility of Let's Eat Out! taking on the Meet & Eat neighborhood food cart nights. A city SEED grant could then continue to support the voucher program that provides coupons to aid families of limited means in eating at the carts.
Ameigh is also pursuing permits for Let's Eat Out! to vend in city parks. "To open up that kind of [unexplored] area," she says, "that's kind of huge for us."