Most of the downtown and campus food carts are packing up for the season, although the warm November weather kept some of them on the sidewalks later than usual. When they return to the streets next spring, not all will be in the same spots. Street placement is determined by rankings carts receive for the year; rankings are determined by a formula that balances seniority, any demerits received, and taste-test rankings.
At the end of September, the Mall-Concourse food carts were evaluated by a 22-person tasting review panel. The committee started out with 26 tasters, but some had to drop out "for reasons beyond their control," says Warren Hansen, the city's street vending coordinator. Testers have a week to sample and evaluate food from the 30-some carts that park on the Library Mall and Capitol Concourse Monday through Friday and some Saturday-only vendors. It's a task, with chowing at four to six carts a day necessary to get the job done.
Tasting rankings are weighted 40% to "food, menu and taste," says Hansen, "40% to the look of the cart, and 20% to originality. Is what the cart offers different from what someone else is cooking?" Originality is important "so that we don't get 20 hot dog carts."
Although the main thing at stake during this admittedly subjective process is the vendor's ability to choose a cart location, there's also "a non-negotiable sense of prestige for those who have high scores," Hansen suggests.
Plus, location can be key: "Most carts prefer to stay in the site they've been in for years," says Hansen. "Customers know where to find them. They can maintain the same daily routine and timetable. There's also a sense of continuity, which I think is good for the street food vending world."
The testers are a group of volunteers collected by Hansen; most are city of Madison employees. Dave Rihn, safety coordinator for the city, has served on the panel for about 10 years: "Warren knew that I was a walker and ate from the food carts fairly often," he says. "We're not experts, and there are disagreements. You try to be fair - it's these people's livelihoods."
Rihn, like other testers, is impressed with the food: "I remember the first time I ate at Ingrid's Lunch Box, I thought, 'Wow, this is really good.' My wife said, 'Can we come back here?'" Ingrid's, indeed, was picked by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the top 10 food carts in the nation. Yet in the official city rankings going back to 2006, Ingrid's has never placed higher than fifth.
Tester Julie Cleveland works in the Department of Planning and Development. "My tastes are maybe not as far-reaching as other people's," she admits, and during testing week she "ate some foods I wouldn't normally eat." Her favorite cart meal is the burrito from the Square's El Burrito Loco.
Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the Madison Arts Commission, says Hansen tapped her because she might have insight in "judging the esthetics of the carts." Wolf thinks Madison has some "really cool-looking carts," mentioning the hand-painting on some, the "industrial esthetic" of Hibachi Hut, the "homey appeal" of Loose Juice and, again, Ingrid's Lunch Box: "Ingrid's is plain but clean, and there's a purity in that esthetic."
Wolf notes that the best-looking carts "don't necessarily have the best food." Ingrid's, however, excels on both fronts: "It's worth standing outside in the freezing rain for that food." Wolf also mentions the Dandelion's cuisine: "It's amazing. Why can't this be a restaurant?"
Hansen says he doesn't receive many complaints from the vendors, but some are disappointed by the results. "It's usually really obvious to me" why a cart is receiving a low score, Hansen says. His suggestions for improvement include having a "crisp, understandable menu board" with good graphics, serving a limited number of items to minimize lines, and keeping the cart "crisp and professional, not looking like an ice-fishing shanty."
"Some judges worry about the look of the cart, some taste, some the price," says Sean Lee of Wei's Food to Go. "It's pretty fair."
This year, one cart owner voiced concern about the "originality" category (it was thought that one cart was stealing ideas from another), while the equal weighting of cart appearance with food/menu puzzles some foodies as well as at least one vendor: "I think it should be focused more on the food, originality and interior cleanliness, not the exterior design."
Possibly as a consequence, there's been a move to more elaborate carts - the homemade wooden versions replaced with metal trailers wrapped with intense graphics, even with speakers playing music. The 26-year veteran Wei's Food To Go replaced its original wooden stand with a metal one wrapped with a dragon design. "That's a perfect example of where Madison's food carts are going," says Hansen.
How does the panel weigh carts that specialize in one item - popcorn or coffee or fruit - against folks who are cooking multiple entrees? "It's not about a specific food, it's how well you do what you do," Hansen says.
Hanson points to a cart new this year, Athens Gyros, that ranked second overall even without any seniority points. If a cart offers good food people want to eat, he says, it can rise to the top of the list.