My first culinary job was working in a food cart on Library Mall. I started working there before I began school here 16 years ago. I got to know the community around the carts, from the owners to the one or two people who ran the businesses day in and day out. I learned a lot from that job, from what it takes to organize and produce food to the struggles and successes that small business owners experience.
Madison has been a pioneer and innovator in mobile food vending. Food carts were a part of our culture long before it became hip, and Library Mall has had food vending since the 1970s. Our country in fact has a long tradition of innovation in this area. It’s telling that when the World Fair was awarded to Milan in 2015, the focus was on food, and the U.S. exhibit was about how we are a food truck nation. I’m proud to be part of this tradition, and I think that Madison can be proud of its place in history.
There is much appeal to operating a food cart. The overhead is significantly less than that of a brick-and-mortar location. Consequently, you see a lot more diversity in ownership. These carts provide a low-cost delicious meal to both students and downtown workers, and I’ve been excited to see how ambitious a lot of the food carts have been. In many ways Banzo raised food cart expectations, which grew consumer demand, and so now we see carts like Cali-Fresh, Mi, El Grito Taqueria and Common Pasta really innovating what is being served here in Madison. These businesses are run by true entrepreneurs, and it's exciting to have them raise the bar.
But I am concerned for the future and growth of our mobile food vendors due to outdated parameters established and maintained by the city’s Vending Oversight Committee.
Madison has fallen behind in street vending because the committee’s policies have had a negative effect on culinary exploration. There are tight restrictions on what kind of vehicle you can operate and where you can vend. If you want to mobile vend in Madison, there are really only two areas where you can sustain a viable business — around the Capitol Square and on the State Street Mall. These spots are densely populated during daytime hours and have become known as a destination for people who want to get a quick, tasty bite to eat for lunch.
The process for securing a spot is governed by the vending committee, which uses a review panel to judge carts on their food, appearance and originality. Then, the scores are reweighted, and seniority is taken into consideration.
In the past, there were more available sites in the two prime locations than there were carts, so the competition was more about which corner a cart landed on than whether it would get a site. But with more carts vying for the same number of sites, the stakes are much higher. This year 60 carts were vying for spots; last year it was 40.
In my opinion the review process is flawed. Reviewers have only two weeks to review current carts and one day to review new carts. This year there were 16 judges made up of community members, media, public employees and some industry professionals. Not a single judge was someone who cooks professionally. Some carts had as many as 16 evaluations, while others had only nine. Data noise created by this disparity in reviews is significant. A review panel is going to have all kinds of issues. But the parameters set up by the vending committee in Madison make the process more or less a biased lottery towards seniority.
It is unfortunate that the city is deciding on people's livelihoods by using such an unacceptable system. I am encouraged that some members of the vending committee are open to considering changes in the food cart review process (the panel meets next on Nov. 30).
I hope the city also finds ways to embrace innovation and accommodate more mobile food vending in general. Madison has fallen behind the mobile vending trends that are booming elsewhere. Cities like Portland, which has more than 700 carts, and Austin, which has more than 1,000 carts, have set up pods where hundreds of carts can vend every day. The food cart culture there is thriving, and you can see the space-making capacity a city can have. These cities have used mobile vending to make their already awesome food scene even stronger, allowing people who don’t have access to capital to open their own businesses and be in control of their economic futures.
We don’t have that culture in Madison; we have fewer than 100 carts and strict regulations about where you can vend. In Madison, it is illegal to vend on private property. This restriction pretty much bans food trucks from anywhere other than some public streets and city parks. These restrictions get in the way of emerging food trends and quash creativity.
I have three recommendations for moving forward. First the vending oversight committee should designate a third high-density food cart hub to accommodate the carts that did not receive a site on the Capitol Square or Library Mall for 2017. Second, I strongly urge the city and vending committee to work with food cart vendors to make changes to the review process to address concerns. Third, I recommend that the city take a broad look at all the regulations currently limiting food carts and find ways to create more opportunities for mobile food vending. This includes the city parks division working jointly with the vending committee to reduce restrictions on mobile food vending in city parks, and considering updates to the city’s zoning code to allow food carts and food trucks to operate on private property. This would give even more food destinations a chance to thrive in a community that is asking for innovation.
Jonny Hunter is a founder of the Underground Food Collective and 2011 graduate of the La Follette School of Public Affairs.