Andrew Gustafson

Midtown Food Cart Tour

Food carts now form an essential part of New York City's culinary landscape, and no place is this more true than in Midtown Manhattan. The massive, block-covering skyscrapers have few street-level retail spaces that are small or affordable enough for entrepreneurs who want to open a restaurant in the neighborhood – as a result, most of the eating options are large chain restaurants than can afford the rents and fill the space. But, these establishments still can't meet the demand – both in quantity and variety – of the millions of office workers out on their lunch breaks. That's where the food carts come in. For the fraction of the cost of opening an eatery, vendors can pull their carts up to the curb and tap into this voracious market. There are gourmet chefs, culinary school graduates, and enterprising businesspeople running these carts and serving dishes ranging from Jamaican to Mexican, Korean to Kosher, gourmet sweets to South Asian delicacies.

Selling lunch on the street has never been an easy way to make a living, and vendors face challenges ranging from tickets for improper placement of their carts to byzantine restrictions on where and when they can operate to unnecessary limits on the number of vendor licenses available. The Street Vendor Project is an advocacy organization that helps vendors, both food and merchandise, navigate the legal pitfalls of sidewalk commerce. Candy Chang made this awesome guide for the project to help their members know their rights, and to help the public know the history and the problems of the city's street vending system (check out the rest of her work, too – it's awesome and pretty inspirational to me.) 

To learn more about how the food cart business works, meet some of the vendors, and of course, taste a wide variety of their delicious offerings, join Urban Oyster for a tour. This is a handy postcard that I made for visitors to help them navigate the carts both during the tour, and should they ever want to come back later.

Of course, the best way to support street vendors is to eat their food. Check out some of the best places to chow down at the Midtown Lunch blog.
Click images to enlarge.