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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bringing street vendors to life in Cincinnati

It's the smell of the roasted nuts while taking a stroll through Midtown Manhattan, the ambiance of the taco trucks in Los Angeles, the frenzy of activity and chatter in Chinatown, and even the echoes of the "peanuts, bottled water...cheaper out here than inside," from the vendors on your way to the game.

In so many ways street vendors add activity and life to our otherwise lifeless and cold streetscapes. And whether you're grabbing a quick snack, lowly meal, or are just passing by, we are all impacted by the life these vendors add. This is a point that William H. Whyte hit on in his 1980 book entitled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

"If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor at the corner and a knot of people around him - eating, schmoozing, or just standing."

And, as Whyte continued, "vendors have a good nose for spaces that work." So while it should be a goal to increase the amount of vendors we have on our streets, so that we're increasing the amount of social activity that is occuring, it is even more important to create the urban spaces that foster this kind of environment.

LEFT: Produce vendors at the Court Street Marketplace attract distributors, browsers and shoppers alike. RIGHT: A typical daytime vendor at 6th & Vine streets in downtown Cincinnati serves up customers and attracts a line of people. Photos by Randy A. Simes.

In Cincinnati we have the typical daytime vendor serving up hot dogs and other like delicacies, the standard vendors selling knock off sunglasses and jewelry, the game day vendors for Reds/Bengals games, and now Nada's new taco stand. But can Cincinnati grow its street vendor scene and foster even more lively urban spaces?

The fact of the matter is that these street vendors open because they either see a market demand and an opportunity to make money, or they are too small to open up their own store or restaurant that meets the necessary codes. In relation to this issue James Cox writes:

"One of the largest hurdles a developing restaurateur or chef needs to overcome is the initial cash outlay for a licensed and inspected kitchen from which to produce the food one sells. You need a fire suppression system in the ventilation system and a gas shut-off valve that is connected to the whole thing. You need a certain amount of space between the stove and the wall to allow emergency escape if there is a fire. You need NSF-Certified work surfaces and either high-heat or chemical sanitation systems in your dishwasher."

As Cox discusses the issue from a Portland perspective he then identifies the "Domestic Food Service License" that has been created there to allow individuals to make food for sale to the public out of their home kitchen legally. This simple, yet politically complicated, issue has fostered one of America's best street vendor communities complete with taco trucks, cookie vendors, chocolatiers, and a variety of ethnic foods. And while boosting the amount of street activity through additional street vendors, the policy has also helped Portland's thriving farmers markets.

Nada's new taco cart attracts people to the corner of 5th & Elm streets in downtown Cincinnati. The self-congestion theory is demonstrated here as people cluster around one another even though ample space is provided. Photo by 5chw4r7z.

For Portland it was less about the design of their urban spaces and more about the policies that govern this interesting group of entrepreneurs. And I would say that Cincinnati is in a similar position where our urban spaces are already well-suited for dynamic and vibrant street life. What is needed now is a more flexible approach to dealing with those looking to operate in such a way.

Let the street vendors grow organically, where they want, when they want, and how they want. Provide as few hurdles as possible and only require the information needed to keep track of the total volume of the street vendors. By embracing these individuals we not only create an avenue for more small businesses, and the grassroots innovators, but we can also create a better city by spurring more activity.

So what food vendors would you like to see in Cincinnati? Where would you like to see them? Is it possible for Cincinnati to facilitate an environment where street vendors flourish?


theboilover said...

I wish Mythos had opened more Gyro carts instead of retail spaces (some of which have now closed). Taco carts are awesome tho. It would be great to see a Melt/other sandwhich cart downtown. I also like the french fry carts in Amsterdam, with the best mayo in the world. Bring it to the Queen City!

Randy Simes said...

Gyro carts are a genius idea, and would seem to be perfect for a small business like Mythos who might have trouble making a permanent location work.

5chw4r7z said...

Great post Randy, I'm ready for a Taco Truck, someone needs to build that now.
Interesting concept of self-congestion. While we waited for our sliders, people who were customers seemed to squeeze in, Mainstay customers coming out to use a cell or smoke a cigarette moved our way instead of the other direction.

Randy Simes said...

The self congestion theory is quite interesting. Whyte discusses it in his more comprehensive book entitled City: Rediscovering the Center where he meticulously studied patterns of behavior in NYC's public spaces.

One of these observations was of people on Lexington Avenue who were gathered out on the sidewalk chatting, and instead of going to a location out of the way of those walking past, they actually congregated naturally near the main flow of traffic. The explanations could vary based on each circumstance, but the behavioral patterns were pretty consistent nonetheless.

Quimbob said...

It's kinda funny, but prostitutes & drug sellers are essentially street vendors. That they resort to violence to protect "their corners" indicates a degree of profitability. But then they don't have to deal with city licensing.
I looked into setting up a food booth at a festival in a public park once. The costs just to the city were pretty daggone high. Add in the other costs for equipment & such & the start up of just a booth or cart is pricey.

jean-françois said...

Ok ok got it!!! I will build a waffle cart soon!! ;)

more seriously I think food carts are great. I remember when I lived in Philly they were all over the place. By Penn campus at lunch time you could find Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, gyros, crêpes and of course hoagies and Philly cheesesteaks. Not sure why Cincinnati only has hot dogs .. And now Nada. That's a cool move from Nada. Food truck has been a trend in Nyc for a while.

There is some investment but in comparison to brick and mortar establishment it's negligeable. And the cost for the mobile license from the health department is under $200.


Allister Sears said...

I saw an interesting take on a hot dog vendor up by UC last friday. One was set up in front of the law school, and in addition to the food they had an acoustic guitar duo performing.

John Bronson said...

"Let the street vendors grow organically, where they want, when they want, and how they want."

Bingo. While I think there needs to be set standards on the carts, I believe that allowing them to locate anywhere in the downtown -- as long as there is space to set up, is a net benefit to downtown. For that reason, I am against planned marketplaces or planned cart corrals -- e.g. Court Street's Marketplace, because they have a tendency to either fail due to location and forced attempt, or fail due to too much regulation.

If we had the concept of pads around downtown, where one or two vendors could set up in a high traffic area, it would be a more successful venture. This would deconcentrate vendors from say, Court Street.

Jenny K said...

you can check out Serious Eats, a blog that regularly runs articles about various street food vendors across the nation:

I'd love to see more than hotdogs and Skyline tents around the center city. Maybe someone should tell Jean-Ro to get on it...

Sean F. said...

Seriously Jean-Francois, if a Taste of Belgium food cart hits downtown, I'm going to be broke, fat, and happy.

Nate said...

Flower/fruit stands were a huge street business when I lived in London- I could see floral stands in Clifton, Northside, Mt. Adams, Price Hill... opportunity?

Chris S said...

One thing that will need to be addressed to allow this are the city rules around where carts can operate. The way things are setup now, there are few locations where carts can be due to rules about proximity to building entrances. I looked into this a while back, but I have lost the cite to the portions of the code that set out the rules.

I would love to see more food carts, and also more sidewalk cafe's (and I know using public space for sidewalk cafe's is controversial, but bring people outside certainly does make an area seem more vibrant, IMO)

Dave Rolfes said...

Really interesting dialogue here, and I love the idea. Carts of any sort would add to the fabric of the community and bring a unique way of dining and shopping to the city.

I've always wondered why someone didn't open one up and put it around GABP during baseball season. You are allowed to take food into the ballpark and without question it would seem that having a cart (taco, sandwich, or otherwise) availabe would be a great alternative for those that don't want a hotdog.

Quimbob said...

per Chris S comment. yeah, the city hates stuff on the sidewalk. That's one of the reasons you don't see street musicians much in Cincinnati.

Leiflet said...

I would cut off my neighbor's left arm to get a decent Taco Truck in town. Oh man. I would personally drive people in from Fairfield if they would set up a Taco Truck, or enchilada stand. Street food is seriously, seriously lacking in this town.

Fuzzy Izmit said...

How do you find out what the regulations are?

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