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May 4, 2012
Lam Thuy Vo/NPR
The Rickshaw Dumpling Truck is a retired postal van, painted red and filled with Chinese dumplings. I'm riding shotgun with Kenny Lao, the van's co-owner. It's a weekday morning, and we're driving into Manhattan looking for a killer spot to set up shop for the day.
"I think there is that mystical spot in midtown that every truck owner dreams of," Lao says. "Easy parking. It's a wide sidewalk. There's no restaurant but there's lots of offices."
There are 3,000 year-round food trucks and carts competing for that mystical spot. And no one has an official place to park.
The stakes are high. A good spot on a corner can mean thousands of dollars in business. If you're stuck on a side street, it can ruin your day.
This is a classic economic problem. There is a scare resource worth a lot of money: Parking spaces. How do you keep the competition for that resource from turning into chaos? New York City could auction the best spots to the highest bidder. Economists love auctions!
Instead, the city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.
You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.
"Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park," says David Weber. He's the other owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling, and he just wrote the Food Truck Handbook.
Food vendors avert a full out war through an informal code of conduct. You respect the guy who got there first. If you're a jerk, the other guy can make your day miserable. A hot dog cart, say, can block your truck window and keep you from doing any business at all.
"We've gone to spots before," Lao says, "where the falafel guys and the shish kebab guys will come up and say, 'What's your menu? Do you sell chicken? ... You can't sell chicken on this block. I'm the chicken guy on 52nd St.'"