This is turning out to be a good one. The process for Viva La Comida is much more than necessary. I spend a lot of time traveling to vendors, many times with ambassadors, to find the perfect fits for the festival. The finish line is getting a line-up of 10 or so street vendors in a variety of styles, whose fans have an utmost loyalty to them. Most are family run, many are from the area. Here at this event, you are getting a true feeling of the people of NYC. It’s not refined, it’s real.
Here’s a rundown of the food carts and why they were chosen. All locations are Queens unless otherwise noted. Queens is the best.
The Arepa Lady (Fri-Sat, 79th St/Roosevelt) – Legendary street food vendor of Jackson Heights, probably the most famous vendor of NYC. They live in the neighborhood, and just opened their own restaurant at 77-02AA Roosevelt ave (enter on 77th St). Anyone from the area knows they do the best arepas, and if you are visiting, you can read about it in the newspaper . This cart has been so popular the last two years that the majority of complaints were because of it – the lines were too long.
D’Angelo’s Italian Sausage Truck (Woodhaven Blvd at 67th Drive) – This is a true festival of the people, giving a nod to NY’s classic street food – the hot dog. I’m happy to have these guys here because A) They make an awesome product of hot dogs, sausages, knishes, and hot dogs in knishes, and B) This type of street vendor has been overlooked in most curated situations because of it’s ubiquity in NYC. You always see ones like this at mozzarepa festivals and as vendors on Manhattan street corners, but what these guys are special. They are carrying the torch of sausages and hot dogs for all of New York. The smell will be intoxicating. The Peter Luger’s of Sausage Wagons (Queens Courier)
Ricas Botanas (Roosevelt/Junction) – Among vendors in Jackson Heights, Claudia Lopez is the queen. She and her husband have been vending here for 20 years, respected and jovial at all times. Her churros recently caught the masses attention, being a finalist for best dessert at the Vendy’s 2014. Freshly fried churros, at a ridiculous price – you’ll love it. Here is fellow food dude Brian Hoffman’s call: Dish of the Week: Churros at Ricas Botanas and his video here El Coyote Dormilon (Roosevelt/92nd St) – This crew has only been at it for less than three years, but they are already one of the best, if not the best, Mexican cart on Roosevelt. If you’ve been on my Midnight Crawl, you’ve almost definitely been here, and the quesadilla has probably been one of your favorites. Freshly packed masa, newly strung quesillo cheese, their quesadillas are a must-get. In the WSJ
Mysttik Masaala (54/Park in Manhattan) – Returning for a 2nd year, this cart is the labor of love from Yuvaraaj Thakkar in remembrance of his son’s wish to open a true Indian food cart. For the festival, this is a great vegetarian food stop, but also a great place for the flavor of India. You will love Yuvaraaj when you meet him, everyone does. Early look from We Heart Astoria
Potala Momo Cart (Broadway/37th Rd, Jackson Heights) – You know momos have a special place in my heart. These dumplings are extremely popular here in Jackson Heights – starting out as a celebratory dish in the far east, but here in Queens it’s an everyday thing – but they are only beginning to be seen elsewhere in the city. Potala is a successful business, making some of the best momos in the area. 8 come in an order, so split an order with friends. Eat them fresh out of the steamer so they are at their juiciest, and be careful not to puncture with your fork (eat with your hands if you can). I am very happy to have them back for a 2nd straight year. Great rundown by Untapped Cities
Mama Food of Flushing (39th Ave/Main) – Looking for a Chinese-style skewer vendor was getting difficult. I wanted those wafts of coal and skewers at the festival, but most of the vendors are quite honestly hard to break – most also do festival-like business every single day in their usual locations. The first year, we were lucky to have Xin Jiang Prosperity Kebabs attend, but this year, to be honest, I was intent on getting a Queens-based skewer vendor. Just as I had lost all hope, scouring Elmhurst and Flushing and coming up with a full-happy belly and no signatures for the event, I happened upon Mama’s Food cart. The fare seemed very interesting, cooking squids in very real shapes on the grill (tentacles hanging out), along with Korean and Chinese kebabs. The woman cooking was wearing this cute outfit and spoke English pretty well (possibly a NY native!). Then I looked over and saw an older woman who looked very familiar - It was Sunny from Xin Jiang Prosperity Kebabs! A bright ray of light in the smoke filled foodie tornado that is Flushing. It barely took any thought, she loved the prospect of returning to Viva and is going to put on a show for us. So, we have a skewer cart, from Queens, and it’s a returning vendor – triple score! This will definitely be picture worthy cart for you.
Manos Peruanos (47th St/6th Ave in Manhattan) – Peruvians are one of the fastest growing populations in this area, and we in Queens are lucky because of it – all of the new, casual Peruvian restaurants is a wonderful thing. Another 2nd year player for the festival, this cart actually operates out of Manhattan in the Rockefeller Center area, but the owners are affiliated with Lima Limon and are from the area. Being one of only two Peruvian carts in the city, I am happy to have them representing at the festival. I will eat anything they serve on a bed of cilantro rice.
Espumilla, Espumilla! (Junction/Roosevelt) – Espumilla is a dessert that is rarely found outside of Corona (or Ridgewood) in NYC. The Ecuadorian dessert is a meringue typically made with guava, here’s a recipe. Formerly a cart with no name, look out for Maria and her Espumilla pushcart and enjoy a scoop.
Picaditas Ecuatoriano – All I wanted at Viva La Comida was a pig on a cart. These carts are iconic to Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, but the past two years they have eluded the fest. Owe it mainly to the desire to be loyal to their customers, it was up until the last minute of cementing the lineup that the lovely Claudia from Ricas Botanas (see above) used her charm and influence to convince Picaditas Ecuatoriano to come. This should be a good show. For a primer on what to get at these carts, see my page here: Ecuadorian Food Cart Defined
This is a true trip around the world, all on 82nd Street. All carts, so the food is going to be right there in front of you. The festival is free to attend, just pay as you would normally at a street fair. There’s going to be music, magic, games, lots of picnic tables, and all the smells, sounds, and flavors of NYC here on 82nd Street.
This event is put on with the 82nd Street Partnership, funds coming from the businesses of their district and sponsors such as USTA, NYCFC, New York Language Center, Dr. Ismail Bastida La Clinica Dental, Councilpersons Danny Dromm and Julissa Ferreras, and Department of Small Business Services.
Last year was a lot of fun and craziness. This year should be even bigger and better. Bring an appetite.
Here’s a video from last year courtesy of Rodrigo Salizar:
Posted in Ecuadorian, Events, Food News, Indian, Italian, Korean, Latin American, Mexican, Nepalese, Queens | Tags: 82nd street partnership, authentic, best street, best street food, comida, Ecuadorian, elmhurst, Hot dogs, Indian, jackson heights, mexican, queens, street festival, street food, viva la comida
In case you’ve never seen it, here it is:
It was my first time. For myself, I’ve only heard about it.
Yesterday on 82nd Street just south of Roosevelt Avenue, two tamale ladies had their equipment seized by the police. The vendors are ones that typically set up in this location, until they are approached by police. Usually they get tickets, and both the police and the vendors go on their way. This time, it was a harsher penalty, and a more demonstrative one.
This day seemed to be a sweep of the area by police, as they later gave a ticket to a publicly drunken man down the street and back at the 74th street station, I saw a candy dealer busted. I also noticed that some other usual unpermitted (but not unlicensed) food dealers weren’t operating as well (I can only speculate what happened to them).
This was the first time I’d actually seen the equipment getting taken away. I’d heard they might do this every 3 months or so. Usually the ladies just get tickets and that’s all. I am not sure if they are directed by captains that “today’s the day” or what. I’ve also been told by one of the ladies in the video that she has been to jail overnight for the same offense.
As I witnessed on this date, the police were cordial, and even apologetic. This is in contrast to many other confrontations I have been witness to, where the officers dealt with the language barrier by treating it as a veil to grey-area morals. On this date, the police were helpful in translating the necessary information to the vendors.
In this video, the police can be seen putting all the food in garbage bags and taking their equipment. As I understand it, the ladies will have to pay a fee and then be able to pick up their equipment at the station or other facility.
I’m not sure what can be done about the situation. These particular ladies are operating in a highly trafficked area because of the amount of business in that area. This visibility also makes it the most controversial. It is a part of doing business, it’s understood and unfortunate. Street vendors have been on the right side of the people and the wrong side of the authorities for over 300 years in New York City. As I see people from other cities celebrate their smallest entrepreneurs, it feels unfair to describe how difficult the city makes it for our vendors here in NYC. As the newest dream of our leadership is to fight the Tale of Two Cities, I don’t see why anyone who wants to work is not able to. The contributors to the public well-being should be praised for it. Those contributors should be our food vendors and our police officers.
As someone who brings tourists to the area frequently (on the “Midnight” crawl), I get asked questions about crime in the area all the time. I tell them how it’s a family area, with constant flow of people under the trains which keeps the majority safe. I tell them about drunk people getting loose on the streets, but also gangs and prostitution which aren’t visible if you aren’t involved. I have never thought about the tamale vendors as crime, and no one has ever suggested it. The fact is, when you are measured by numbers and you can choose between drug dealers and tamale ladies, who is easier to ticket? People involved with more obvious crimes such as illegal drugs, prostitution, car theft and violence are more likely to run, be armed with knives, or be willing to fight. A tamale lady won’t run, is never armed, and usually stands no more than 5 foot 2 inches. Later, when telling about what you do at work to your family, it might be uncomfortable to tell your children that the crime is women selling $1 tamales, but at least you’ll be able to tell it when you’re home safe. And when your job is to stay up all night to cook for masses of people getting off the 7-train, the children might wonder why you spent the night in jail or all your equipment is gone.
Set up in the footprint of Donald Trump’s failed attempt at a restaurant in my hometown is a Smorgasburg. Or Bar, as they call it. Or Burbs, as I’m calling it. It’s hard to even measure how happy I am that the Trump isn’t in Wantagh, Long Island; the thought of it always sickened me. Bringing in aliens from Brooklyn never seemed possible until word came from my parents in a phone call. I had just about given up on the independent entrepreneur setting up a location anywhere remotely government affiliated in New York State.
The older buildings that house what we call the Snack Bar has been in operation for decades. This facility, keeping the fried shrimp, fries, burgers, and adding franchise locations of Red Mango and Subway, sits where it always has – though now across the boardwalk from a Smorg. I’m not surprised, in the daytime, the snack bar is just as busy.
Back at SmorgasBar, it’s interesting how it’s branded. The signs on the tents are generic; They say PIZZA, BEER, FRIES, OYSTERS, etc. This wouldn’t fly in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, it’s all about the branding and name-recognition. Just a title of a food wouldn’t work, especially if it weren’t deathly close to jumping the shark in the foodiverse. We don’t want “pizza”, we want Pizza Moto, or Lucali, or something we’ve heard of. “PIZZA” doesn’t cut it. “Beer” denotes Budweiser and Coors, and we don’t want that, not in anything less than a 32 oz styrofoam cup.
Get under the tent, though, and the vendors are A-1. They include Fleischers for barbeque, Rubirosa for pizza, Handsome Hank’s Fish Hut, a french fry vendor, oysters, nachos, and more. All fresh-to-order, and all best-of vendors. I was astonished how the quality across the board flat-lines on excellent. Perpendicular to it is a beer garden (big tent to drink under); and on the other end is cornhole, table tennis, and all-weather couches. But in Wantagh, I don’t think the name recognition is there. Do they know that Rubirosa is one of the cities utmost top pizzerias?
It is obvious that the parent company is trying. Considering that this is an experiment, being given a 1-year lease for the space, to get this caliber of vendors, they must have made sweetheart deals (consider the fees of doing business at the original). The SmorgasBURG (Williamsburg) is insanely crowded, and I’m not sure if Jonesed Beach can reach those levels of cash flow. It’s possible, and probable, these Jones Beach vendors are being given the easiest path possible to make this work – which I am all for.
The prices seem similar to what you find in Smorgasburg, which is not cheap, but the boardwalk has always been expensive, so it’s not as outrageous as the more traditional Smorgs. Anyway, the snack bar vendors on the boardwalk are chincy. This, at SmorgasBurbs, is great quality food; expensive, yeah, but whatever, you’re at the beach. And this beach is the location of Smorg I’ve been happiest to see. It replaced Trump. It isn’t chain brands. It’s good quality food. There is nothing wrong with good food.
The big question is: How well is Long Island is going to take to it? The fact is that Nassau and Suffolk counties have been talking about brain drain for two decades, so the solution to marketing to the new working class is still being worked out. Looking back to my suburban life, this would have been a great hangout for me and my friends. I would have loved to insert Boardwalk into our weekly schedule of: movies, Dunkin Donuts, driving range, pool hall, repeat.
Hopefully it’s only the beginning. Trump’s giant footprint left plenty of room to expand with more vendors, hopefully in the coming years this will be a true destination. I’m on the side of local entrepreneurs, good food, and the people of Long Island. Brain drain be gone!
I got tired of those articles giving people excuses to go ALL THE WAY out to Queens. So I penned my own listicle of actual reasons why one might go into Manhattan. It’s true though, my friends and I rarely go into Manhattan anymore. It’s just too much of a chore, too much unnecessary navigation through the tourism, the chicanery, the let-downs. It took a while, but I got a list down of 13 real reasons to go to Manhattan. If you can think of any more, let me know
Buzzfeed is actually pretty fun to make lists on. I would definitely do it again. Please share this list, this information should be known.
A lot went into the Momo Crawl of 2013. Budded from 2012’s humble beginnings, 2013 had everything much tighter and resolute. The rainy weather gave us a challenge, but otherwise it was 98%. Participants had fun and became exposed to the neighborhood, vendors made money and introduced themselves to new customers, and I sold some artwork. Process was important for this event, so here is a look into how it all came together…
I want to see businesses I work with get immediate results. If you’ve worked with me before, you’ll know that I’m stubborn to collect fees from businesses or to even offer anything at a discount for the sake of promotion. I posit that prices in Queens have never been an impasse for entry, the issue is communication. On another plane, I may actually start collecting fees for some events just so the cogs have some skin in the game. Putting money up will inspire them to take it more seriously because they are invested in it (there’s been a few no-shows at Viva la Comida, which a $50 fee might have rectified (maybe a deposit)).
In 2012, we organized in groups of 8 so each group would get one order of momos at each location. We barely coordinated with businesses beforehand and it mostly worked but there was some waiting time lag and confusion when a group of eight came in and only wanted one order of momos. It actually turned into a war of logistics for the eaters, as the “winner” became the group who managed to come up with the best schedule to order and eat them all in the allotted time-frame.
In 2013, $1 momos sold individually made everything simpler; One momo is the perfect serving size for a crawl, One dollar would be a quick monetary transfer. Plus, the businesses would net more money (8x$1=$8 for 8 momos as opposed to the conventional $5 for an order of 8).
$1 momos actually had the most resistance from the business owners themselves. They thought it was crazy that people would actually pay more than their standard price per momo. I told them not to worry and just make money. Through possibly guilt or glee, some of the restaurants went above and beyond by showing participants complete experiences of the restaurants when they came in – some showed off other dishes and gave butter tea for free, one even gave away the momos without charge. I was conflicted because I thought this might influence the vote.
For my side, it’s good to have people make some sort of a purchase so they treat the event with respect. People should see that although casual, it’s not a random meet-up. It’s important for people to know that they are getting a fun, unique experience with work put into it. They should expect it because they have entered into this transaction.
Every event I do has to be price-accessible to everyone; it has to be an awesome event that I would definitely be willing to pay for if I were attending. I try to keep the costs so low that when people ask for press passes, it’s totally laughable because a) You can probably afford it and b) there’s no room for anyone that isn’t invested.
Just about every event is a dream-come-true for me, and pricing is usually something I like to play with. One pricing experiment was at Trick or Eat, where I charged $10 for any group of people (no limit to group size). At the Flushing Mall Grazing Experience, everyone had to order one dish and bring it to the main table to share – no monetary charge for entry. Even at Woks and Lox, we had tiered pricing so people could get involved no matter what their wallet or schedule.
For this event, the price was 2 bills of any denomination for one map of the momo crawl. Everyone had to get a map if they wanted to vote for a winner or know where the locations were. The 2 bills price would allow the amount to range from $2 to $200, depending on what the guest wanted to pay. Most people understood it quite well, some asked for change which I tried to relay to them that this was not comprehendable because how am I supposed to split a paper bill into two? It was great because I didn’t spend any time giving anyone change. It was interesting because I saw some people angling for ways to spend as least as possible to get in, perturbed if they did not have two $1 bills. Some were evaluating how much was appropriate so as not to look too thrifty or others feeling good about giving what they thought it was worth. I tried not to pay attention to what people were giving me, thanking everyone equally. It was a fun experiment, and I would definitely use this price structure again.
THE MANDALA MAP
Last year, I had a few meetings at the Rubin Museum to help with tours and some of their programming. Afterwards, I always took the opportunity to walk around the museum and learn about these cultures whose foods I had been exploring so much. Mandalas struck me the deepest.
A mandala is something visual created with geometric patterns. There are many meanings, depending on who you ask, but overall it seems to be about a wholeness with the world. Further, a thangka may contain a mandala or a large deity, but it would usually have visualizations telling a story or teach about Buddha’s life or another being. The typical one about Buddha showed important scenes of his life, and all the different episodes he was involved in. The thangkas are beautiful, intricate communicators with so many stories and lessons portrayed.
As I explored the Himalayan cultures and thought more about what the Momo Crawl could be, I realized that a thangka/mandala would be the map.
This became the largest piece of the process and an important one for my own understanding. I did research about meanings, and took many trips to area Himalayan stores for inspiration. I was in constant communication with my Himalayan ambassadors to be sure I wasn’t offending anyone by centering these traditional art forms on something so common as the momo.
As a wide analysis of analyses I realized that there is no one truth to a mandala’s essential aim. Most explanations of meanings are simply centered on an interpretation of a small set of drawings. Looking at various mandalas and reading their descriptions, you’ll see that meanings change according to who is the artist. It is my conclusion that there is no grand collusion of the monks. At first, I studied so many metaphors that were in use, but then I realized it was totally subjective. I realized that I should just be using the basic model of the mandala, but I should be free to come up with my own symbolism. If I were to follow someone else, I would not be aiming as true as I should be.
As I looked at the locations of momos in the area, I thought about how the neighborhood is mostly on a grid with Broadway cutting diagonally across it, this symmetry would just about align with what a mandala could be. So I started drawing.
For the roads, I evolved to take liberties with longitudes and latitudes in order to make the map more symmetrical than actual geography has intended. That being said, the center of the map being Roosevelt and 74th street, with no locations more than 2 blocks north, 2 south, 2 east, or 2 west was nearly divine. It was meant to be that one of the largest train stations in NYC is right underneath us, where everyone traveling here would enter the mission directly from the center of the map. It seemed perfect that the neighborhood was layed out this way. With some reductions and alignment, it continued to evolve…
People use the center of the mandala to anchor of the piece, to be a point of focus or representation of an idol. It ties everything together, and for me, as you may know if you hear me talk about the momo, the momo unites the neighborhood and possibly the earth (soon). It is so important as an ambassador to these cultures, it has an extremely bright future in the world and the possibilities are extreme. And that’s why it was so obvious to put a little momo in the center.
This momo was the only thing I had to actually draw; my penmanship is terrible, so this worked out well.
I knew it had to be black and white to cut costs, but just drawing black lines was getting boring to me. I figured I would use shading or patterns for contrasting areas on the map. How could I do this? Walking around the neighborhood, there are so many different forms of text all around you. Looking at some of the newspapers, when you see complete blocks of text, at a wide perspective it becomes like a pattern rather than a language. I thought this was cool. I would use newspapers from every language in the neighborhood to make this mandala. This map would unify Jackson Heights.
As I thought about it more and more, the symbolisms started to reveal themselves. One common symbolism I borrowed was of the outer ring being of fire. All the circles were objects borrowed from my apartment, and my bicycle gear as a ring of fire was perfect! This outer ring commonly represented a hurdle in the story. With the ongoing strife between China and the Tibetan culture, a reason why many Tibetans come to the United States, it was perfect that the outer ring of fire would be made out of the Chinese newspaper sourced from Pacific Supermarket.
In a traditional Thangka, there are characters all around the piece representing the crew to the main character. I needed a way to represent all of the momo locations in the neighborhood, so I figured they would all be crew members of the central figure (the momo). Around the map would be an “altar” and address for the locations of each momo place in some sort of order – and that blank altar space would later be filled in…
In essence, this was creating a shrine for each momo maker in the neighborhood. Part of me wondered if this was sacrilegious, but another part of me thougth that they deserved it!
WE NEEDED A VOTING PROCEDURE
I read somewhere about how monks create these intricate mandalas out of sand which take an incredible amount of hours – then when it was done, they let it go into the water or destroyed it in another fashion. I have always like this principle of attaining something through tremendous effort and letting it go. I wanted the crawlers to experience it too.
I figured we would have stamps at each location. Each person’s map would be stamped as proof that they went to each location, and each location would have a different color ink.
For the stamps I wanted corks because they were the perfect size for the map, also I liked the non-uniformity of the impression that they would make (thanks to my friends at Table Wine for their supply). I couldn’t just give people plain corks for the crawl, so I thought about these little canisters which I had always admired at Butala Emporium that contained Kumkuma (a red powder which is used as body markings for religious or social events). Whatever that was, I loved the design on the canister. I was a little down because I was using a religious object for my purposes, but, again, people didn’t seem to think it was too sacred a thing to use for my own purpose. I emptied out a pack of Kumkuma canisters and that would be the holder for cork stamps.
In a session with my father’s machine shop, he helped me cut the corks to size so they could fit in the caps.
At the time of the event, I instructed everyone that in order to vote for a winner of the Momo Crawl, attendees had to tear off the winning stamp from their map, and deposit it into our voting jar. This would mean that they were essentially, willfully destroying their maps.
Some were outraged that they had to destroy their beautiful accomplishment, but that was part of the process. I did this for a few reasons: first, each location had a different stamp color, so that was easy to do the final count. Also, it was the aspect of the monks destroying their art which they put so much effort into. The people had to be satisfied with their experience and then let it go. I did get a little upset that some people actually chose not to vote in favor of keeping their map intact, but that’s just the way things go.
My religious views have never been realized, but I’ve always felt that there is a way. I don’t expect to follow any religion in the future, but the views I have learned from this process have strengthened my views of the world.
THE MOMO TROPHY
I’d been getting into trophies ever since our Halalathon the prior winter. As an adult, it’s just such a lost experience, receiving a trophy. Why do pre-teens and teenagers get all the fun?? With the success of the Halalathon hinging on it having a trophy, I was inspired to continue this track and make an even better one for this event. I totally would have bought a commercial trophy, like the lamb trophy for the Halalathon, but it’s a damned fact that no one makes one with a dumpling on top of it. S0 I had to. And it had to be one giant, golden momo.
For many of my projects, I am lucky to have a father who is an extremely skilled machinist. I can usually come to him with an idea, and he can help me actualize these things and fill in the blanks. Just like when I won every single pine-box derby competition in cub scouts because I wanted a car that could ‘go fast’ or when I ‘made’ a coin-operated gum-ball machine in middle school shop class.
He fashioned an old wax tin as the base:
Consulting with Frankie, I used Super Sculpey clay to make the form. It was a new experience to me, and I learned a lot – learned even more after it was already finished on how to use the stuff – but after rolling it out and forming it a few times, my father and I eventually baked the thing into a huge momo. I’ve learned much more since we made it, such as using water to smooth it out, or using aluminum foil instead of a light bulb (see above) as the inner frame, but we did it.
It came out pretty well! But the beige skin wasn’t the dream. It had to be gold. I enlisted my friend Alyssa D’Anna to help me with this. Alyssa is an amazing artist. She makes these large paintings with such vibrancy and playfulness. I went to her studio in LIC to work on the momo. We ended up painting it Aztec Gold, which really sparkles because of the gold chips in the paint. For the bottom, Alyssa brained up the black and white striping. I gave her full creative control on this, with the only stipulation that the momo be gold. It was a cool thing.
And that’s what went into constructing the Mandala Map and the Momo Trophy.
To see the Momo Trophy in person, go to the Momo Crawl 2013 winner, Phayul, located at 74-06 37th Rd, Jackson Heights, NY
Special thanks to my Nepali Ambassadors, Sahadev Poudel, Tshering Gurung and Tshering Gurung (owners of Himalayan Couture). Thanks to Himalayan Connection where I continually go for advice and inspiration, and where I found this amazing book: Goddesses of the Celestial Gallery
I prefer not to talk publicly about plans, but I think if we were to do this the exact same way again, it would be a tremendous hit with over 250 people attending – not just because of the 2013 success but because of the general rise in interest for the momo. Therefore, the simple Momo Crawl is a back-up plan to a much larger event. Any more talk would be getting ahead of myself.
*If you would like a copy of the Mandala Map, email me jeffsayyes -at- gmail , and I will give you the info to send 2 bills of any denomination in exchange for a map.*
Should businesses that serve a local clientele, specifically ones in the outer boroughs catering to a singular immigrant community, participate in large food festivals – who request they give their product away for free?
This is the question I have had on my mind: Should I encourage the businesses I work with to do free food give-aways at events?
Participating costs money – not only for product but also for employees, transportation, signage, and the potential shut-down of the main location. This cost plays against the perceived marketing value by showing up at the event and giving people tastes of what you do. For my events, I’ve always tried to bring customers to the restaurants themselves, but it’s possible I’ve been shortsighted. It’s possible fishing in another pond altogether can lead to greater success.
The highest regarded of all restaurant-touting pay-one-price food festivals in New York City is the Village Voice’s Choice Eats. It started in 2008, featuring restaurants largely unheard of, other than being written about in the then-anticipated weekly write-ups from food writer Robert Seitsema. These picks reached deep into subway lines finding obscure standouts that only locals or flavor liberals were aware of.
Every year since has become grander and grander, with less of a percentage of legends from minority neighborhoods. Looking back, participating restaurants of 2008 like Albert’s Mofongo House would seem way too esoteric for today’s eat and greet extravaganza. In 2013, there were four participating restaurants from Queens (same number, but half the percentage of the 2008 event), one from the Bronx and one from Jersey, with a handful of what one might consider ethnic eateries from Brooklyn. This year, there are six restaurants from Queens (Alobar, Bear, John Brown Smokehouse, Ovelia, Queens Comfort, Zenon Taverna), all based in Queens’ most technologically social savvy neighborhoods of Long Island City and Astoria, catering to an even larger population than the neighborhood.
While it was once the Sietsema show of great obscure ethnic eating, Choice Eats has shifted gears to a general celebration of all things popular in the worldly food scene of NYC.
Switching tabs to Yelp:
Yelp has a series of events in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In each of these boroughs, they conduct about nine events a year inside restaurants providing evenings of eating and imbibing – free of charge – to their Elite members. Once or twice a year they have a larger bash with many restaurants coming in to a common space like the Museum of Moving Image to give away samples of their food. I have always wondered if it was worth it.
I could speculate and talk about it on Facebook all day, but wouldn’t it be better if I made a few calls and email a few emails?
Astoria’s Gregory’s Corner 26 Taverna participated in Choice Eats 2012 and had all good things to say about the event. I even felt a little clumsy during my phone call because I think they thought I was calling to ask them to participate again. When I asked if it was worth it to do, the woman on the phone gave a booming “Of course!” She said they were proud that they gave her a sticker to put in the window, and how some people came all the way from the other boroughs just to visit them here. Business, whatever, it was a fun experience.
This threw me for a bit of a loop. As my first pace of research, I was expecting to hear something like “ehh, no one really came. We wasted our time.” As I thought about their enthusiasm, and even apart from the good time it was being with all these other great restaurants that they probably wouldn’t normally get to converse with, I started opening up that for a local, immigrant-centered restaurant, this could make them a focal point of the neighborhood for outsiders. I always see that people know generally about neighborhoods of immigrants but aren’t sure where to start. They know Astoria has Greeks, Flushing has Chinese, Jackson Heights has Indians, but specifically it can be intimidating. This leads to the constant grueling question locals get asked: Where should I go? Which place is the “best.” This term “best” unconsciously may be synonymous to the term “safe” which may also be unconsciously synonymous to the phrase “welcoming to non-natives.” People who are traveling in don’t want to take chances. The mention by a trusted source or the connection from a live event might be the introduction people need to feel confident walking in t0 the real location. In an area of uncertainty, just one friend will make you feel grounded. Meeting and eating at one of these events could be the creation of a focal point - it creates a friend.
But Choice Eats expects 3000 attendees and over 60 restaurants, plus countless beverage offerers. Would one suffer from turning into a needle in a haystack?
Zenon Taverna participated in 2013 and are again participating in 2014. Representing the omnipresent family running the restaurant, daughter Elena sees it as an opportunity to reach more of their demographic. Choice Eats not only directly appeals to their core audience of 25 to 40-year olds who are not necessarily Greek, but Village Voice also does a lot of advertising for their own event and as a byproduct, Elena’s family’s restaurant.
As a foodie herself, Elena payed attention to what worked and what didn’t in 2013. In order to stand out from the rest, this year she is tailoring her menu to better suit the expected crowd. Last year, they served 1. Meatballs of pork and lamb and 2. Vegan Grape Leaves. She realized that because the grape leaves were listed number 2, a lot of the people assumed they had nothing vegetarian to offer. Also, even though the pork meatballs are their specialty at the restaurant, solely offering the lamb meatballs will be more globally agreeable especially for Kosher or Halal leaning people. Adjusting their aim, they hope to bring in more customers to the restaurant and, even more importantly, increase their business in catering.
Patacon Pisao started out as a local legend in Inwood. A few years ago, they expanded to a local-centric location on Grand Ave in Elmhurst, and now they own a 2nd mobile vending unit (a truck) that mainly operates at festivals. I’ve seen them at Yelp events handing out their cachapas, so I quizzed the business’s progeny, Jonathan, about participating in events like this via email. Here is his text:
Food events are a big factor to the success of our business. We take part in them because it is great to get our product to new demographics as well as food bloggers. Food events have had a big impact on our business because it brings new customers over to new locations. I’m actually opening up a new storefront in the Lower East Side. Reason being because for the past 3 years we have been doing food events and fairs (Grubstreet Fest and Hester Street Fair) down in the Lower East Side and saw there is a demand for our product down there.
As for advice for other business hopping on the food event van wagon, always have more food than everyone else. Also don’t go crazy with the menu keep it simple and showcase why you got invited to the food event in the first place.
Finally, I sent an email over to Scott from JoJu Modern Vietnamese in Elmhurst. If you have been within their social reach, you’ve seen all sorts of ways they interact with their clients to gain a relationship through contests and price specials and questions for their audience. Outreach aside, they are still are a business deep in an Outer Borough catering mostly to locals. Also, they are my spot for Vietnamese coffee.
Here is our email exchange:
(JO in italics) You have done multiple yelp events, so obviously it’s been working out for you. Why do you do it?
Yelp reviews have always been extremely valuable to us. We are very fortunate that our yelpers have been very kind to us. The events are our way to show our appreciation. Many of these Yelp events are specifically targeted for the elites. By creating a good relationship with them, we hope that they will continue support us with their kind words.
What has been the impact on your business?
Although we have not been able to accurately measure the direct impact these events have on us, each one has always managed to bring in at least a few new customers. We think that the referrals from these few new customers, whether personally or from their review posts, can be tremendous.
There are a lot of costs involved, with personnel, transportation, food, etc – do you have any tips for food places doing free events like this?
I think that these events are a good opportunity to introduce a potentially new product that you might want to offer in the near future. Where else can you find such a large focus group, right? But it is also important to have your featured items in addition to your test ones. Guests who have never heard of you still have to know what you do best. As for costs, I think by choosing the right events, the benefits of the marketing aspect of it would outweigh the costs.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Having fun with your staff at these events is essential. I think guests are really good at sensing the synergistic connections of your team, which directly affects how they react to the food you are serving them. Haha…this sounds like a load of crap, but I really do believe in it.
I did this research and analysis because I was thinking of encouraging one of the restaurants I work with (probably Little Tibet) to participate in this event. After further review of the Choice Eats FAQ, though, I see that “Only restaurants featured in the Village Voice are invited to participate in Choice Eats.” – and unfortunately, they have not been reviewed yet. But if they were, I would have encouraged them. Showing well at the event and communicating (beyond handing out food) to non-locals is one anticipated result, but also the press and attention from representing our neighborhood in this highly regarded event would help in the immediate area. In this neighborhood, a lot of locals who are outsiders to the Tibetan community would be intrigued and feel safe that the an NYC-wide publication such as the Village Voice thought them to be worthy. The bread and butter outside Lower Manhattan is usually the people who live in the neighborhood, and for Jackson Heights, the locals>=2nd generation are still looking for an introduction to this cuisine (and many others). I think that from the inclusion and the marketing, many locals would give them a shot. I think it would be worth it for Little Tibet or Gangjong Kitchen to do the event for this reason. Other cultures in other neighborhoods might not be as beneficial, but after further review – and opposing my previous viewpoint – I see the light for some pro-bono events for some niche businesses.
In my own experience, as a team-member for vendors at two Vendy Awards, I changed my perspective of how to work these events. Working with Tortas Neza in 2012, I saw he and his wife working so hard and putting so much money into the day to constantly feed the people (food cost + missed opportunity + gas). At the event, with the 40-plus person line, it became a never-ending duty to feed the people. Tortas was chopping, slicing, grilling as fast as he could to crank out sandwiches, as the attendees were eating and running to the next truck. The Vendy Cup would have been great to win, but when we lost we were totally deflated. So much hard work, and we were clearly the best, but we just didn’t win. Looking back, I realized that we only served food, we didn’t play to his strengths as a showman, a charming man, and a tastebud destroyer. If we would do it again, which I would hesitate to, I’d lobby him to spend more time in front of the truck and make sure that line is nice and long. Forget about feeding the people, just satisfy them with a taste, entertain them, and make them want to come back. For his business in Corona, a place where it’s rare for even foodies to visit, it just doesn’t pay off as regularly as it would in areas where locals are outsiders such as Astoria, Jackson Heights, or Sunset Park – and especially not for a business that doesn’t partake in catering.
As opposed to print ads, participation in these types of events are similar in cost but have much more connection. As I tell most of the food places that I try to help, it’s all about communication. Taste is second to connection - and these events can make a connection. It just might be worth it. For now on, for pro-bono food events, I’m abating the red light, moving on to yellow (go faster, yet cautiously).