Food cart frenzy
Growing a business sector 56 square feet at a time.
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Competing for space
Currently, the city has an orderly though sometimes criticized process for determining which carts end up where as food cart owners vie for space and customers.
Each September and October, regardless of a cart’s longevity, every cart is reviewed in a mandatory-juried process. A team of judges representing diverse industries — from culinary professionals to office workers — review and score each cart. “They don’t get paid,” Blake-Horst notes, “but they must agree to try food from all of the carts over a two-week period.”
Anyone can apply to be a judge, she says, and that, perhaps, is one issue some owners have with the process.
Judges score each cart individually, based on the food served, the cart or tent, the originality of menu items or presentation, and seniority. Points are docked from a total if a cart had a known health or vending violation the previous year. Carts scoring the highest are assigned to the more lucrative Mall/Concourse area. Those not making the list can vend elsewhere. [Food safety and handling regulations are approved separately by the City-County Department of Health.]
The subjective nature of the judging and points system has been criticized by a few. Some cart operators have been confused as to how the points system works, while others have expressed disappointment at the scores they received and hinted that the process gets political. “I was aware of those issues when I walked into this job,” Blake-Horst admits, deciding it was time to revisit the process.
The city’s food cart community includes some that have been operating since 1977, and some that are in their first year. “The challenge is in trying to be mindful of all of their needs,” Blake-Horst states. “This will always be subjective, but how do we level that out and remove any political aspect? This is their livelihood.”
Two focus groups were just completed and attended by a mix of vendors, judges, city staff, cart owners, and others. “We’re trying to get a handle on what the challenges have been,” she explains, “and we’re also using an equity tool to look at the issue from a racial and social justice perspective, but this will be a multiyear process.”
Blake-Horst says several changes are being considered. The city could provide training for food cart reviewers, increase education to cart owners on how the review process is done, allow new carts to vend to the general public during the review day (currently they can only serve to judges that day), allow the reviewer to provide feedback on the process, and create a more equitable way to incorporate seniority points into the process.
All of these proposals have to be brought back to the Vending Oversight Committee for review and changes.
Nate Overland and his wife Markelys have just completed their first month in the food cart business. Their cart, Métropolitain Handcrafted Street Food, has a vending license to operate around town but not on the Mall/Concourse. “We had some issues with our cart last fall so we couldn’t get into the competition for the downtown space,” Overland states. As a result, their cart travels around town, from the Hilldale area to UW Hospital, UW Research Park, to DXC Technology (fka Hewlett Packard). On Wednesday nights, it makes a regular appearance at the Capital View farmers market.
Nate Overland, in his Métropolitain Handcrafted Street Food cart, is banking on his new career choice. Photo courtesy of Métropolitain Handcrafted Street Food.
Métropolitain serves a French/Asian fusion menu. “It’s food that we want to eat,” Overland says. “It would be nice if we could be on the Square every morning, but this way, we’re putting our food in front of different people every day.”
Overland is a Madison native whose culinary talent led to jobs on Washington Island, Devil’s Head Resort, and on to Palm Beach, Fla., where he worked at the high-end Everglades Club. “They provided employee housing to the chefs, but we were not allowed to have children on the property.” With housing options unaffordable there, the couple decided to return to Madison to raise their young son.
“I came to a place in my life where, although my career was on track, I was enjoying the corporate aspect of hospitality less and less and really wanted to cook food that I enjoyed rather than spending time on reports and emails, or placing orders.” Hoping to simplify, the couples chose the food cart route and spent about $35,000 on a new cart built by Caged Crow Fabrication in St. Germaine, Wis.
Like many cart owners, the Overlands prepare their food each day at the FEED Kitchen on Madison’s north side before heading out to the cart. “The margins are good,” he says of the business after just three weeks. “There’s no overhead, we’re not paying employees. It is weather dependent to an extent, but there are a lot of opportunities to vend. If you work hard you may get a space downtown.”
Sandwiches average $8.50 each, but days are long, beginning around 8 a.m. and ending after everything is cleaned up, around 10 p.m. Overland hopes to match his food and beverage salary in year two.
He also plans to enter the competition in the fall, hoping to land one of the Mall/Concourse spots in the next cycle. “What you’re really going for is a six-by-10-foot space downtown where you can park your cart without getting arrested,” he jokes.
If he had to start again, Overland says he’d do more upfront legwork and talk to other vendors about their experiences. “I’d also look for used equipment. We bought everything new.”
Overland also warns others to carefully check for variances between city and county vending rules. “We need a generator every day. The county said the decibel level had to be less than 75, which we met, not knowing that Madison had a decibel level of 60. So we got into trouble with that.”