Posted by: Jeffsayyes | May 21, 2012

Urban Oyster Tour Scouting Mission – A tour guide’s comparison

I’m trying to be awesome at tours. I want every aspect of what I do to be complete and great.  Last week, I met up with a friend, Brian Hoffman to go on his Urban Oyster tour of the Financial District Food Carts.  I’m lucky enough to know Brian from our shared passions of NYC, pizza, and telling people about it – I even think I’ve watched his pizza video of NYC 3x. For this adventure, I wanted to see the differences in our tour styles, in his preparation, and how we eat.  I’ve got to learn from people like Brian because I don’t want to get better just through experience; I’m going on the best tours of NYC to get great at this now.

Urban Oyster is a company that has about 5 tours throughout the city of varying matters history and ingestion. The main one i wanted to go on was the food cart tour because, apart from just seeing how other tour guides do it, I wanted to know more about street vendors in Manhattan. I wanted to see how the Roosevelt Avenue vendors compare. In this post, I’ll compare our tours and tell you some of the things that I learned and how I’ll implement them to what I’m doing.

Before the tour, I was sent an email for location, what to wear, and other information. The current email that I send out is very structured with the essentials, and not much verbiage. I think I will keep it like that because I like to have a bit of mystery for what’s going to happen with these tours. Their email, however, was more comforting to the toured ones.

Here’s something cool – Urban Oyster has a check-in at Four Square … It would be great if everyone took advantage of it, but reality may have other plans…. Also, they have a line in their email about gratuities. That’s a good idea. Lots of times when I do tours, I can sense people are unsure of what to do regarding this… When I tell them “this is our last stop,” I see them fidgeting around in their pocket, wondering if they should put out a bill or not. It would be good to say from the get-go, Damn right I accept tips for doing this thing! I need you to encourage me to be awesome like this!

Okay – On to the tour! – Here’s Brian handing out the first dish

Our first stop was about 40 feet away from the meeting spot, at Veronica’s Kitchen, a Jamaican cart that’s been on my to-do list for years. Brian had a nice system where he had a stack of little bowls to give to each vendor, and they knew to fill the bowls with a $2 portion (or so). For my tours, we usually get tacos (split in half), quesadillas (split in thirds or fourths), and other times people end up sharing a dish full of food. Sometimes we do have some excess food which goes in the garbage – a problem I’d like to solve.  I always have little plates and utensils with me, and on my first street food tour after I went on this Urban Oyster tour, I gave one of my vendors a stack of little plates as she was splitting the quesadillas – and as a result, she portioned them out seemingly by instinct – Universal communication, yes!  That worked out well.

At Brian’s tour, we usually had somewhere to sit (or at least lean) as we ate. For my street food tours, there isn’t much places to sit, but some of the vendors do have their own chairs which they put out for customers that we use. We also make use of the shelves that are on the trucks themselves. I guess it’s more hunch forward for Corona, and lean back for Manhattan. It’s a different crowd and a different landscape. On Roosevelt, it’s more families and people are more relaxed. On the FiDi tour, it’s people on their lunch break, lots of clean suits potentially getting dirty.

One thing that I couldn’t get over during the tour were the lines! Wow, all these well dressed people 20 persons deep for lunch. I don’t know how they do that. The lines do go pretty quickly, but still…

Brian told us about some of the businesses that make and customize the carts. The Midtown tour apparently goes to the factory, dang I missed that! Also, he highlighted Worksman Cycles in South Ozone Park, Queens, who make and customize vendor carts (they also have some awesome bicycles). Below was among the pictures and documents he showed us of historical photographs and other items.

I similarly have a big binder full of dossiers on the vendors, applications, laws, maps, and other info. I haven’t quite found the best way to introduce all this stuff into my tours, but people are always like woahh, when I bring out the big binder. Last tour, I just put it out at our starting location (Mexican karaoke bar), and told them you can look through my stuff if you care to. The pages didn’t get ruffled through as I would have liked, so the big binder still mostly just served as a device to give me a back ache by the end of my tour.

It was cool to compare the business models (FiDi Manhattan vs Roosevelt Ave).  One of the aspects most dissimilar is that some of the Manhattan vendors change locations every day. From my own analysis, this creates an Event when they are in town. Where, on Roosevelt Avenue, vendors typically have their spot, relying on regular customers coming out of the subways, here, the Bistro Truck is only in your area one day a week, and you are probably sensing more of a pull to visit them because of this. That smaller window of time makes it more desirable, and people think of their presence as a special occasion. Pretty cool.

In total, we ate at around 6 stops. My favorites were the bahn mi from the bahn mi cart, the meatball sliders from the Our Heros Truck, and Waffles and Dinges – with the Wafels and Dinges spekuloos topping on the waffle one of the best things I’ve ever had from a cart.

As for take-home swag, Brian gave us postcards for Urban Oyster, which show a map of the locations we went to. It’s a slick looking, low cost item, but I wonder how often people actually mail them. Either way, it’s a promotional sheet, with added value as a postcard – so that’s cool. On my tours, for swag, sometimes I have games where people try to spot something on the avenue that I’m looking for… like illegal items or types of permits, etc. and I’ll give them a Mexican candy prize if they win. I love games and giveaways, but many times I forget about the game and it’s too late by the time I remember it. It would be great to have a sponsor who wanted to give things to my participants, like Mexican promotional products or maps of NYC.  Hmm, what’s Goya up to?…

The next day, I was sent an email by Urban Oyster, prompting to tell friends and review, and to tell me about their other tours. This inspired me to rewrite my own closing letter with a greater, more concise push to write reviews on my tour. In addition to a rundown of what we ate and where we went, I currently have a schpeil about how important reviews are, as opposed to news articles – but I’m going to cut that out to keep it efficient. I’m going for a greater push at reviews now because I have an urgency that I need to have as many people come on my tours as possible – and personal recommendations are the best way to get people to come on the tours. Last week, I had some major breakthroughs to the community and I keep on delving deeper and deeper in it – this area thrills me to no end, and there’s so few resources on it. I need to share everything I see with people in person, and I need to bring people to Roosevelt Avenue to show off what we have.

What I realized about my own tour is that I don’t have to go to 10 vendors in one night like I’ve been doing. At the Urban Oyster tour, we went to 6, and I was very satisfied. I do always try to over-deliver, but sometimes just passing by and explaining is okay. I do, however, feel bad for the vendors if we don’t buy anything…. maybe they can be short drink stops or something…

For Brian’s tour, I tried to remain in the background and learn as much as possible, but I couldn’t help but get involved in the conversation about the street vending and legalities. Coincidentally, there was another tour guide there training to lead this tour, and one guest remarked that they got three tour guides for the price of one. I didn’t want to take any spotlight, so after that remark, I resolved to chill out and just eat the food…  Someone also asked if we were competitors, if our tours were similar. We both denied it, although we might be somewhat competitors… but the fact is that our tours are very different; Our tours are as different as Manhattan and Queens.

Thanks, Brian, for leading a great tour! Read more about Mr. Hoffman at his site,, and Urban Oyster at

Hopefully next is Scott’s Pizza Tour. Most of us guides regard him as the height of food tour guides in NYC. I’m long overdue for a ride in the pizza bus…

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