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Where is all the street food, really?

We love our downtown food truck scene. But why are they only in a tidy line, and why only at lunchtime?

We love our downtown food truck scene. But why are they only in a tidy line, and why only at lunchtime?

Yesterday I had the hangries so bad I was shaking. Now, I know what you're thinking — I'm about 175.2 meals away from starvation. I could survive on the lunches I've put down on over the last month alone, on the weight of my haunches and the jiggle of my lady arms. And maybe that's why I was so freaked out about it all. Lightheaded hungry is not a thing I like to be. I was downtown, I was running errands, I was on the move, I tell you. It was about 5 p.m. which, yes, I realize is happy hour — I might have had a headache but my faculties were not lost to that degree. But here's the thing — I just wanted a bite. I did not want to sit down, I for once did not want to drink, and I did not want to go to a "fast food" joint. I wanted to hork down a taco, a kebab, some kind of roasty meat thing to provide energy for me to continue on my many important urban missions of banking, bookstoreing, and brassiere shopping. 

I looked around a little hysterically. I was on Nicollet Mall at office-drone release hour. This is dinnertime for some people, after all, and nothing. Not a single waft of smoking meat, of toasting bread, nor sweet music of steel spatula happily tapping metal flattop. 

Even the most cursory travel outside the country or even the state will indicate that access to food on the street improves the vibrancy of any city, not to mention the bouyancy of one's mood. Hangry is simply not a good look on anyone. New York has its ubiquitous Halal Guys stands and Mr. Softee trucks, Mexican cities have everything — tacos, sliced fruit with chile and lime, even breakfast carts that roll out with pastries and freshly squeezed juices in the morning; all of Southeast Asia has entire open-air night markets devoted to feeding throngs of hungry devotees of various vendors who often pass down beloved recipes for specialty dishes from generation to generation of cook. 

Much hullabaloo has been made about our local food truck scene, and I should know because I've been one of the main ballyhooers. We went without any street food culture at all for a very long time, if you're old enough to remember those sad, Dark Ages days that seemed like lo, forever ago but were really just a few short years back.

The proposal to allow street food vending in the downtown area passed in 2010, and was actually introduced internally by the City Council and a few area business owners hoping to — you guessed it — improve street vitality. And yet, the only real vitality it's introduced is downtown, on one or two streets, at corporate lunch hour. What about the rest of us? What if we get off work at 10 p.m.? What if we want an early and quick dinner? What if we wake up hungover on a Sunday and we need the medicinal properties of a lengua taco, extra salsa verde? Our street food options are limited at best, and more likely nil. 

According to an excellent 2009 article written by Andy Sturdevant (with the help of the MN Historical Society) for the Heavy Table entitled The Missing Street Food of Minneapolis, our town actually had a robust, busting street food scene at the end of the 19th century, with pushcart vendors selling all manner of street-friendly delicacies of the time: roasted chestnuts, peanuts, bananas, peaches, hot dogs, bratwurst, pretzels, fried ham-and-egg sandwiches, even hot tamales — one of the original true street foods with fascinating roots and history requiring its own story altogether. 

But according to that same article, "in 1893, the city council passed the first licensing ordinances, making it illegal to operate a food cart without a $75-a-year license — an exorbitant amount when one considers that $75 in 1893 is over $1,700 in contemporary dollars. This seems to have effectively priced out quite a few would-be vendors, many of whom were hardscrabble immigrants. Two years later, an ordinance was passed definitively banning “sandwich wagons and push carts from the business center of the city,” an area defined as extending from the river to Seventh Street South, and Second Avenue North in the Warehouse District to Third Avenue South. Exactly how strictly this was enforced is uncertain, though the vendors were said to be “considerably agitated.”

But why were food cart vendors ousted? At best, concerns were raised about public nutritional safety, food freshness, and traffic flow issues; and at worst, civic paternalism and thinly veiled racism were attached to the ordinances, with street food vendors being described in the Minneapolis Tribune at the time as “odd people” and “dirty looking individuals” and as “not infrequently of the colored persuasion.”

Am I saying our lack of doner kebab pushcarts is because of racism? No, I'm not. But I am saying that there is historical precedent for their absence. And now that we do have a street food culture again, and we see that all hell has in fact not broken loose, I think it's time to loosen the constraints, so that it isn't just a regularly scheduled phenomenon, limited to the invisible ropes of Sixth and 10th Streets, on Marquette, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., or corralled into an agreed-upon block party. That's not street food. That's a service, or it's a festival, and that's fine. But street food it ain't. 

I'm irritated by the same quandary stated in this 1902 Minneapolis Tribune quote:

"Just how the odor of fried ham could contaminate the highly moral atmosphere of the capital city does not appear in the ordinance.” 

Our town's civic works is progressive in many ways — public art is robust, summer festivals threaten to bust the seams of our calendars, we're turning into one of the most bike-frindly places on planet Earth. But we still want control. We want things to be squeaky clean and Swiss in their mechanics and on time and not late and not too loosey-goosey. Even when the public clamored in enthusiasm for the passing of the proposal five years ago, with general agreement among council people, there was also immediate hand-wringing around public health, nutrition, and environmental concerns. 

We're glad that the masses have not gotten hurt or sick or crushed by a street food vendor in the five years they've been around here. A few people don't like them, but hey, every party needs a pooper. The experiment is working. Let's see more of the same. 

Which brings me to a final point — why does all of the street food have to come in the neat, tidy package of a gleaming truck? Why don't we see more vendors on bikes and pushcarts? Even $20,000 is a prohibitive barrier to entry for a micro-business that might only make a couple hundred dollars a day after overhead, and quite easily less than that. The bargain-basement price for a good, operating street food truck is around $20,000 and can easily climb into the $100,000 for something brand new with lots of bells and whistles. The cost of running one of these behemoths also means disincentive to hang out and cook for more occasional passers-by, so they tend only to post up at the height of lunch hour, when cash is spewing fast and furious, like ketchup from a squeeze bottle. They're also enormous, and difficult to park without disturbing traffic. 

All of this is an elaborate call for help. Can someone please, please open a taco stand on my intersection? And hey — Minneapolis City Council, can you make it so it's easy for that person to do it? Because Mexico is a long way to have to travel for modern conveniences.