Madison food carts at a tipping point

The city's process for regulating food carts is beginning to show its age.

Illustrations by Claire Warhus.

Illustrations by Claire Warhus.

When Madison held its inaugural food cart review—the annual process deciding which food carts will get to vend at the Capitol Square and Library Mall—it was 1990 and there were 20 carts in all. District 4 Alderman Mike Verveer, a member of the city's Vending Oversight Committee, recalls in his first year judging the review (circa 1995) it was held in the Madison Streets Division garage on Badger Road and took a matter of hours—from sampling every cart's fare, examining the construction and creativity of their design, and evaluating overall originality.

Since then, the process has evolved exponentially. In recent years, a clutch of about 20 to 25 volunteer judges have spent two weeks in October attempting to visit every contending food cart—a notoriously difficult task, as the number of carts has continued to grow, keeping pace with Madison's burgeoning food scene.

The decades-old system, thought to be unique to Madison, is a time-honored tradition. But in a number of ways, its age is beginning to show—an issue that came to a head this year when a record number of carts (20, including popular newcomers El Grito Taqueria and the Ugly Apple) were given a thumbs-down for the 2017 season.

Not only was there an all-time-high number of applicants (60 hopefuls) to fill 40 spots, but there were far fewer panelists (16) than in past years, and some of them did not visit every cart. One cart, Curd Girl, was judged by just 9 reviewers.

Between the past two Vending Oversight Committee (VOC) meetings, which heard testimonials from food cart owners and community members alike, and an op-ed authored by Madison food trendsetter Jonny Hunter published in Isthmus last week, several main concerns have come to light.

There aren't enough judges.

City regulations require a minimum of 12 judges for the review, and at least 80 percent of judges (on average) must visit each cart. This year, that minimum was met. But several food cart owners have argued that there should be more judges, and they should be tasting the food at every cart at least once.

The rankings are calculated by eliminating the highest and lowest scores for each cart and finding the average of the remaining scores. Thus, having a different number of judges evaluate each cart "results in false equivalency," argued El Grito co-owner Matthew Danky at the VOC meeting in October, calling the rankings "statistically invalid."

"It's hard to feel that you're getting a fair shake," he added.

In a letter to the VOC, requesting an appeal of their scores (which was denied in November, due to the highly specific grounds on which a ranking may be appealed), Danky and co-owner Joshua Barraza wrote, "This does not give a fair representation and is an egregious disservice to these small businesses. A differential between 9-16 judges provides an inaccurate sample, especially when you take away the top and bottom scores, which leaves some carts judged by as few as 7 people."

Hunter (who owns several culinary businesses in Madison, such as the Underground Butcher and Forequarter, and has a master's degree in public affairs) wrote in his column that "data noise created by this disparity is significant… A review panel is going to have all kinds of issues. But the parameters set up by [the VOC] make the process more or less a biased lottery towards seniority."

Warren Hansen, the city's vending coordinator for nearly two decades, said at the November VOC meeting that he has made recommendations to the committee in the past that judges should be required to visit every cart. The VOC never acted on that advice.

Judges aren't given enough time.

Reviewers have two weeks to review carts that already have a spot on the Capitol Square or Library Mall, and one day to review brand new carts. The more carts that enter the lottery, therefore, means more food for each judge to consume and consider—not to mention they are also expected to evaluate the aesthetics and originality of each cart.

"I think I asked every judge: How do you manage to eat at every cart?" said Leia Boers, co-owner of Leia's Lunchbox food cart, at the October VOC meeting. The most common answer ("I get a lot and take it back to my office") is problematic for Boers' business because, she said, "All my food is fried. If you don't eat it in the first five minutes you're not going to experience the full flavor of my food."

Christine Ameigh, the owner of Slide food cart and founder of Let's Eat Out: Madison, a group designed to foster opportunities for food carts beyond the downtown lunch and weekend crowd, thinks the review should take at least a month or two.

"I think it should be longer, like two months," she said in a phone call. "People can't eat that much food in a week—I know I couldn't—and judge it discriminately."

Ameigh has consistently procured a downtown spot since opening Slide in 2012, but she said she empathizes with carts that were turned away this year, since she has "always been a little skeptical of the process."

"It's the most nerve-wracking month," she said. "A lot of us do Taste of Madison, and then as soon as it's over you start to think about the review: Are you going to paint your cart? Change your menu? What are you going to do to add a little extra flair to beat the competition?"

Extending the length of the review would help ease some of that pressure for cart owners, she said, and would give judges a more accurate representation of each cart.

"A lot of carts do a lot of pomp and circumstance — which is fine! I get it! — but let's see what you're like on a regular basis," Ameigh said.

Judges lack the expertise needed to properly judge food and cart design.

The responsibility of appointing volunteer judges falls, year after year, on Hansen. He typically manages to recruit more than 20—mostly city employees—to do the judging, but is the first to admit it's an imperfect system.

"One of the main reasons the system is flawed is because it involves human beings. I'm not sure what to do about that," he said at the VOC meeting in October. "I essentially 'fire' two or three people per year, and find someone new I can depend on."

At the same meeting, Hunter brought up that Madison Area Chefs Network, a group he co-leads, was not approached to participate. "We could have gotten a lot of food professionals involved," he said, adding in his column that "this year there were 16 judges made up of community members, media, public employees and some industry professionals. Not a single judge was someone who cooks professionally."

Ameigh said she appreciates having city employees judge, since they are her main lunchtime clientele, but she would like to see a mix of city employees, culinary professionals, and artists (since the carts' aesthetics are also being judged).

"We've had a couple chefs on the panel in the past," she said, mentioning Heritage's Dan Fox, "but chefs are so busy. I think if it was longer, and more spread out, we could get more of those people to participate."

FIB's of Madison owner John Handley, who handed out a bulleted list of "thoughts on judging" at the November VOC meeting, said at least half of the judges should be in the restaurant business, and other judges should be professional "creatives at design firms and/or advertising agencies," an industry in which he formerly worked for many years.

"These people know and create great ideas every day of their lives," he said. "They know good and great ideas."

The judge selection process, said Danky, "needs transparency." Since there is no formal application, or vetting process outside of Hansen, there is no way to ensure there are no conflicts of interest and that the panel is adequately diverse.

Judges aren't given enough training, particularly sensitivity training.

"Sometimes I'll have a judge come, order a hot dog with ketchup, walk away and give the hot dog to their kid. That's no way to judge food," Handley said at the October VOC meeting.

His cart, which ranked in the top 20 this year, has never had trouble securing a spot. But people he knows who make good food have been wronged in the past, he said, adding that each judge should be required to "sign something that says they will judge to best of their ability."

Seeing their food handed off to children was a common complaint from food cart owners. Another said a reviewer had given his assistant his ID card to act as a proxy taster. Others said they feared that, with many judges participating year after year, they might be coming into the review process with preconceived notions about certain carts' food.

"There needs to be better education, a better approach to the review process… Some reviewers tell me they've been doing this for over 18 years. Maybe they know what they're expecting," said Amy Swanson, whose cart, Ladonia Cafe, also ranked in this year's top 20.

Calling the review the most stressful two weeks of the year for food cart owners, Swanson said it would help if reviewers were told from the get-go to "please be mindful that this is a livelihood for most of us; this is what we do, how we pay our bills."

Hearing these comments, community-member Elizabeth Katt Reinders said at the October VOC meeting that reviewers ought to consider the "full weight" of the consequences their behavior will have on food cart owners.

"If my family's income was based on a handful of judges making decisions in one week, I would be terrified," she said.

Food cart owners don't have enough say in what they will be judged on.

Food carts are scored on a 100-point scale, receiving up to 40 points for food, up to 40 points for apparatus, and up to 20 points for originality. (At which point, to reiterate, the highest and lowest scores are removed and an average is taken.) Then, one "seniority" point is given for each consecutive year the cart has had a spot downtown (carts may take a one-year "sabbatical," Hansen explained at the October meeting, and retain their seniority points).

Some cart owners have lamented the weight given to seniority (the top 10 carts this year all had between five and seven points added for seniority). Hansen said the problem is a perennial one, but he is open to seeing it change.

Typically, "if you don't have seniority points, you are envious of those who do," he said in October, "and if you do have points you don't want to give them up."

Ameigh said the most important thing for her business is consistency, and the seniority system rewards existing carts by giving them a head-start toward keeping the customer base they have built up.

"With or without seniority, I think there should be some benefit to being in business longer," she said.

In his list of suggestions, Handley stressed that "carts should be judged the way people judge restaurants: the food, the service, the atmosphere."

Above all, Danky said, "food cart owners and customers should have a greater voice."

The data entry and analysis process is inherently flawed.

A number of concerns regarding data-handling have been brought up over the past couple months.

Danky and Barraza have spearheaded a self-proclaimed "audit" of sorts, writing in their letter to the VOC that "data entry errors from 2015 and 2016 directly reflect the lack of professionalism in the process [by] which livelihoods are determined. These irregularities were only brought to light through our first open records request. After the receipt of the judges' scores, El Grito invested considerable time in studying the criteria, methods and system of evaluation for the food carts. We even created a website so the public can examine the process and results."

At the November VOC meeting, further discrepancies were presented from the current year and past years—most likely, Hansen said, at the fault of the software and service used to tabulate rankings — and the committee called for a special session to be held Dec. 14 to discuss these issues.

The city should consider adding more food hubs, to lessen the urgency to be downtown.

In the days following the release of this year's food cart review rankings, Barraza said in a phone call, "Other food cart owners, our friends, have reached out to us in tears."

While El Grito's business model is largely driven by "the power of social media" (Instagram posts tell the cart's nearly 3,000 followers where and when they'll be popping up), he said other food carts rely much more heavily on foot traffic, which is harder to come by outside the downtown area.

"I would say for 75 to 80 percent of the carts, foot traffic is all they have," he said. "That is all they do."

In his column, Hunter expanded on this idea by looking to Portland and Austin, among the top U.S. cities for street food vending, saying "the vending oversight committee should designate a third high-density food cart hub to accommodate the carts that did not receive a site on the Capitol Square or Library Mall for 2017."

The city should reconsider restrictions about where and when carts may vend, the type of food that may be cooked in carts, cart size limits, etc. that may be stifling innovation.

Hunter added that he "hope[s] the city also finds ways to embrace innovation and accommodate more mobile food vending in general" by taking "a broad look at all the regulations currently limiting food carts and find ways to create more opportunities for mobile food vending."

Barraza said El Grito had to design their menu around the restrictions in Madison—serving meat that is intended to be cooked "low and long," since it must be cooked ahead of time and reheated.

Changing that regulation would "change the type of food you would see," he said. "It would change street vending food in Madison drastically."

This is not the first time it's been suggested that Madison ought to loosen or change regulations. But Hansen said he has avoided doing so by design, hoping to avoid the "growing pains" (as he told Isthmus in 2012) experienced in cities such as Portland.

Rolling forward

These complaints do not seem to be falling on deaf ears.

At the October VOC meeting, citizen member and longtime Madison restaurateur Rena Gelman said, "I identify with a lot of what was said here. I appreciate that this is a livelihood, a business. I'm enthusiastic about being part of this process."

Gelman suggested that there should be at least one "get-together" with reviewers to draft a new set of criteria for judging.

"I don't think change is impossible," she said. "I would like to be part of the change going forward."

Hansen's supervisor since June, Office of Business Resources Manager Dan Kennelly, added that the regulation "is pretty silent on the assignment of reviewers," saying he would like to see a focus group with VOC members, vendors, and reviewers formed in 2017 to "get ideas on the table in a structured way."

At the November meeting, the committee encouraged anyone wishing to comment or get involved in a reform process to attend future meetings.

This ongoing paradigm shift happens to coincide with another major shake-up: Warren Hansen's upcoming retirement. Hansen has been Madison's street vending coordinator for 18 years, in many ways shaping the city's vending landscape as it exists today.

The new hire, Meghan Blake-Horst, is a co-founder of MadCity Bazaar and has been involved with small business development in the city for many years. She starts this week and will train alongside Hansen for three months until his last day at the end of February.

Blake-Horst will have her work cut out for her, as she'll be overseeing more than 200 food vendors, arts and crafts vendors, and sidewalk cafes.

Above all, Ameigh said she hopes Hansen's successor "will be hands-on with food cart owners during [her] training — meet us, hear our stories."

Hansen said Blake-Horst will accompany him to the next few VOC meetings, and at the February meeting he plans to sit in the audience and only chime in if asked, so as not to "influence the future" too much.

"This is an opportunity to transform the system," he said, "so that in future years it works better for more people."

In the meantime, it's unclear what will happen to the 20 carts that were ranked 41st and below for the 2017 season.

Danky said at the November VOC meeting that he and Barraza plan to re-appeal, based on further calculation errors uncovered during the meeting, after which point El Grito may take the issue to court.

"What's next for us?" he asked the committee. "What verb do I use? Do we have to 'sue' the city?"

Short of litigation, there may be a few other options open to these carts. For one, there is still a chance that spots could be added, or carts might drop out mid-season, as is common. Or, potentially, two carts could ask to "split" time at a spot if both don't intend to vend every day.

"I'm optimistic that we'll be able to accommodate the vast majority of applicants," Verveer said in a phone call, "but there clearly will be more people on the waiting list than there have ever been... I think we are victims of our own success."

Some food carts set up on southeast campus (University Avenue, Dayton Street) or Research Park during lunch, or in parking spaces outside of the high-density downtown area. Ameigh's group, Let's Eat Out: Madison, which had about 34 participating food carts this year, coordinates clusters of food carts to set up in parks and neighborhoods for dinner, as well as MadCity Bazaar and other events, in order to generate business. Some carts, including El Grito, also do private events, partnerships, and pop-ups.

But there may be a larger issue at work here that is more difficult to address: Will there be a point at which there are just too many food carts for Madison to handle?

Hunter, Danky, and Barraza have made it clear that they think city regulation is stifling innovation. But even with those regulations in place, Madison's food carts have seen an explosion since about 2010, and show no signs of stopping. In addition to the 60 applicants in the food cart review, there are about 20 more carts citywide.

"It's not as if there's an unlimited supply of food-cart space in Madison," Hansen said in October. "It's not in our hands."

Ameigh would not advise anyone to open a food cart in Madison right now, she said, unless they were fully aware of the degree to which they would need to compete for sales — not just with other street vendors, but a multitude of restaurant options.

"The market is saturated right now," she said. "If you don't have another avenue to make revenue other than your cart, I don't know how feasible it is to be successful and not be struggling."

In many ways, Madison's food cart scene—40 years in the making—is at a tipping point: Will vendors and city officials be able to collaboratively reform the review process? And will Madison emulate the pods of Austin and Portland, or the massive trucks of L.A.—or will it chart its own course? Whatever the case, history tells us that food cart vending in Madison will be able to weather the storm.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Amy Swanson owns the Ladonia Cafe cart, not Curd Girl