Food cart frenzy
Growing a business sector 56 square feet at a time.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Long before the tiny house craze or the trend toward downsized living took hold, Madison vendors have been selling cookies, falafel, popcorn, and sandwiches from food carts. These days, those micro-businesses have a growing impact on the city’s culture and economy.
From the Library Mall to the Capitol Square to business locations around town, food carts are expanding in number, getting more creative, and offering distinct menus from an equally unique group of entrepreneurs.
“Food carts represent one of the most diverse communities in any level of business, from Korean to Mexican,” notes Meghan Blake-Horst, street-vending coordinator for the City of Madison, who just took the reins from her predecessor Warren Hansen after his retirement.
When we spoke with Blake-Horst, she was knee-deep in 2017–2018 vending licensing applications and renewals, so current data was unavailable, but last year, she reports, the city registered about 80 licensed food carts, including 49 in the highly sought-after Library Mall/Concourse area. Revenue to the city was about $60,000.
Food carts on the Mall/Concourse are limited to a maximum of 56 square feet in size, while those operating elsewhere (e.g. Camp Randall, Southeast campus vending area) can be twice as large. Generally, a required street vendor license in Madison costs $200 annually plus another $1,000 per individual for a Mall/Concourse Food Vendor License. Other fees may add to that. A late-night vending license, which allows food to be sold in designated areas between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., ranges from $200 to $500 a year depending on the size of the cart.
The city’s food cart rules are extensive, and some vendors hope for a relaxing of those related to vending on private property, arguing that places like Austin, Texas and Portland, Ore. have vibrant food-cart communities that aren’t so restrictive and cost even less.
Geographically, the isthmus downtown limits the number of vending spaces available and makes Madison unique, Blake-Horst explains. “On the other hand, Madison is a model for other cities and we are creating innovation here, as well. We also have employment zones where carts can set up, such as University Research Park, American Family Insurance, or UW Hospitals.”
Currently, food carts outside of the Mall/Concourse area can vend in rights-of-way (i.e., often a strip of land between sidewalks and the curb) around town, but not on a person’s private lawn, for example. That rule limits business potential, some food cart owners claim.
Matt Tucker, Madison’s zoning administrator, hears it all the time. “Any place is going to be more profitable if there are less restrictions,” he agrees, “but the city has considerations for orderliness, safety, aesthetics, and they look at the impact of businesses on neighboring properties.”
In fact, he notes, the city has approached food carts cautiously for decades. “We have a long-standing policy here that generally prohibits vending or open sales on private property. The basic premise behind that has historically been to protect brick-and-mortar stores, like restaurants.”
From a development standpoint, Tucker says the city has rules and regulations around how properties are developed, where buildings sit, how parking lots are designed, how pedestrians move through parking lots, or how trucks locate. “Just letting food carts go where they want isn’t good, either. How do you manage orderliness?”
The devil is in the details, he says. “I have looked at what other communities are doing. Yes, we have a lot of rules and regulations but our city is absolutely thriving. Part of the reason, I would argue, is because we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Madison does make exceptions, Tucker notes, such as allowing vendors to participate in special events like church picnics or school fairs, and it allows a group like Let’s Eat Out! to back pop-up food cart events around town, such as the Isthmus Food Cart fest in Central Park.
But the reality is that food carts and vending are just one of many items under Tucker’s watch. “I have a long list of things I need to do in zoning,” he states. “This is one of the items on that long list.”
Yet with the number of food carts increasing and many restaurants starting their own carts, pressure is mounting. “We know we have a population that likes street food, and we have a system,” Tucker says, “but I always have to think about what could happen at that church picnic, or the people across from the church who may be impacted. How is trash being disposed of? What are the hours and what activities are going on?”
It’s not that the department won’t ever relax the private property rules, he explains, but it’s also not in zoning’s immediate control. “We need a policymaker to start the discussion,” Tucker says. “Whatever the alders, the mayor, the city council decide is what we’ll do.”
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.”
John Pickle and Jennifer StCyr are in their third season with Pickle Jar BBQ & Pie at the top of State Street. Their idea grew from a love of cooking, entertaining, and experimenting with foods on the grill. “He was a vegetarian,” StCyr says of her husband. “I corrupted him.”
Pickle Jar BBQ & Pie, owned by John Pickle and Jennifer StCyr, is in its third year of operation. Photo courtesy of www.hankr.us
Urged on by friends and family, the couple began to explore the idea of making a living from their passion. “We like being around each other,” she states. “Together we’re one whole brain, so we started looking at opening a restaurant but that was out of our reach. A food cart made sense.”
They also purchased their cart from Caged Crow in northern Wisconsin. “We made some mistakes,” StCyr admits in hindsight. “Looking back, I would not have gone all-electric. We operate solely off a generator now, which is good and bad, but it weighs a ton. Propane would have offered more versatility.” They made it through the competition their first year but were on the waiting list for year two. “You can lose your position every year,” StCyr warns.
They rent cooking space at the FEED Kitchen, which allowed them to install an electric smoker. “Our pork shoulder smokes for 22 hours but we’re only charged for the time we’re there,” she notes. Their sandwiches range from about $7 to $9.
Thus far, StCyr has been impressed by the sense of community within the city’s vending community. “We’re definitely glad we did this. Overall, we’re a lot happier. We’re working more and making less but the rewards [are numerous]. We love everything we make. We’ve gained weight, so there are detriments, but our food reminds people of home and grandma.”
The couple talks about opening a restaurant one day. “Food carts are a great way to test ideas, but you can expand either by adding another cart or doing catering, or you can be like Rocky at So-Ho. You either stay mobile or put down roots.”
So, how’s it going?
“Rocky” is So Pak Ho, owner of So-Ho, an Asian fusion restaurant in Fitchburg that started as a food cart and still maintains one. Ho grew up in Hong Kong and moved here when he was nine years old.
He launched his food cart in 2012 but was always intent on opening a restaurant. Over time, his food cart menu expanded from lunch to dinner. Now, as part of Let’s Eat Out!, the cart continues to prove its worth around town while his restaurant thrives. “It was always my idea to open a restaurant, but the food cart was a smaller risk and smaller investment,” Ho explains, saying he started the food cart with relatively little business experience.
His original plan was to open a second food cart that would be supplied by the restaurant, “but the food cart market is very saturated,” he notes. “There is a lucrative side to it but it’s not always as easy as it looks.” The city’s food cart culture is growing fast, requiring more dedication, he explains. “I’m working a lot harder this year to compete. The restaurant is doing well and the food cart has proven lucrative, but I won’t do a second one.”
He has no regrets thus far, saying he wants to continue growing his portfolio. “You can’t just make money in the summer and drain it in the winter. I wanted to be more consistent and the restaurant provides that.” He may even consider opening a second restaurant soon.
“I think most people with food carts aspire to open restaurants or a store,” Ho says. “But then, I know people who own a restaurant and want to downsize to a food cart. It’s all a risk. Food carts are tricky business in Wisconsin because of the weather.”
Ho currently employs six people and will add three to four more in summer. “I have a food-cart guy now,” he says, and there are times when the cart is busier than the restaurant. “We’re selling convenience.”
He also emphasizes the importance of having a network of friends. “You have to save a lot of money to start in this business. It’s all hard work, and networking is important. Friends make up for about 25% of my sales, and when they have to drive to your location, that says a lot.”
Kay-Tee Olds has a broader vision for her food cart. The owner of several startups in town, Olds ventured into the food cart business in June 2016 with Rodeo Wagon, a cart located where West Washington meets the Capitol Square. A horse lover, her menu was inspired by visits to horse shows and rodeos across the southern U.S. Rodeo Wagon sells breakfast burritos, open-faced beef sandwiches, and “a ton of cornbread,” with most items selling for between $7 and $9.
As an experienced businessperson who took part in the city’s focus groups, Olds suggests that decision-makers could be more supportive of food-cart owners. “There seems to be a lot of support from the food-cart community and the city’s development team to allow food carts to vend on private properties, but the process creates a real barrier,” she says.
She’s heard of some cities over-regulating food carts to such a degree that the licenses are being sold. “That hurts the equity piece, and demographics shift from minorities to corporations.”
Madison’s food carts are owned mostly by women or minorities, Olds notes. “[Food carts] offer a huge opportunity for first-time startups. I’d hate to see that shift in the other direction because we are too restrictive.
“The joke in the food-cart industry is that if you can make it profitable in Madison, you can do it anywhere.”
Regulations can differ from city, to county, to state. “We’ve now replaced the sink and water heater in our cart, the generator, and cooling units, which met Milwaukee’s standards but don’t meet Madison’s,” Olds notes, but those frustrations are behind her because Rodeo Wagon, she says, has turned the corner and is now more efficient.
“A food cart is still a really low-risk investment,” she acknowledges. “Much less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant would be.” Hers was built in Kentucky. She spent about $25,000 on the cart and has hired a managing operator to run it.
Olds recently discovered that the carbon footprint food carts leave can be significant because of the amount of power they consume and the to-go containers and disposables they often distribute. Attempting to be more earth conscious, she is exploring the possibility of going solar or using propane to keep Rodeo Wagon functioning.
She pays for city-provided electricity but also supplements the cart’s energy needs with smaller generators that require less gas. With the help of locally based True Coffee Roasters, she created a custom-brewed coffee that is served in eco-friendly cups and lids. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
Unlike other owners, Olds’ aspiration is not to expand the business with a second food cart or grow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. She hopes to replicate a food cart business model elsewhere with the end goal of creating more jobs and opportunities for future entrepreneurs. “I want to take this into other markets and team with entrepreneurs because I like to support startup communities.”
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