Gary Baker, an employee at JD's, prepares chicken at the first Madison Meet & Eat on the north side, which is located next to St. Paul Lutheran Church.
Eric Gavins, the owner of Raffy's Hot Dogs, was somewhat disappointed with the turnout at Madison Meet & Eat when it was held at the Villager Mall on Madison's south side. "It was pretty slow in comparison to every other event that I've been to this summer," he says, recalling a more enthusiastic response at its original location by the Meadowood Shopping Center on the southwest side.
Organized by the city, the summer food cart gathering debuted at Meadowood in 2012, and returned there in June for a second season. This year, the city also expanded the program to two new locations, one at the Villager Mall, and the other by St. Paul Lutheran Church, which is located along Sherman Avenue on the north side.
The south side Meet & Eat was held over four Tuesdays in July, while the north side edition launched last Tuesday, and returns that day each week in August. The food cart gathering also continues at the Meadowood location, where it is held every Thursday through the end of the month.
Mayor Soglin's aim is to use Meet & Eat as a tool to strengthen Madison's neighborhoods and local businesses. The expansion of the program has brought mixed results so far.
Gary Baker, an employee of JD's, says that some neighborhoods in Madison simply aren't aware of or familiar with the idea of food carts, which hurts turnout in those areas. "The south side, it was kind of up and down," he sid. "The west side, they were familiar with it."
Yet Baker and other food cart owners and employees were still optimistic about the potential of Meet & Eat, taking its less tangible benefits into account. "It gives us more exposure to all sides of the town," he said. "Some people cannot make it to either the downtown area or to wherever we may be located."
"I think it's really good for the community," added Gavins. "We go out and the neighborhoods seem to love it. They just love the fact that they can have food carts in their neighborhood as opposed to having to go downtown."
Austin Turner, who works at the Banzo food cart, considers Meet & Eat a good opportunity to advertise. "We'll probably do it in the future, but part of the reason that we do is just because we're such a young restaurant," he explained. "We want any exposure we can get, even if it's not really lucrative."
Banzo recently opened a restaurant on the same block where the north side Meet & Eat is located, and invests very little in advertising, relying instead on word-of-mouth.
"A lot of people still don't know we're there," said Turner. "We come here with the potential, the hopefulness that it will pay off."
Meanwhile, Gavins is already seeing the benefit of reaching out to other parts of Madison, and has some new repeat customers because of Meet & Eat. "I have certain people that come back every week and get the same thing," he said. "I would say it's impacting the long term."
Customers at the first north side Meet & Eat, held August 6, certainly seemed happy with the event, and many newcomers were impressed with the quality of the food.
Richard Murray, who lives in a neighborhood near Sherman Avenue, ordered from Caracas Empanadas. “We live across the street, so it's pretty easy to walk over and have dinner," he said. "I'm impressed. It's very nice."
Bea Murray took the opportunity to order from the Banzo food court. "I've been wanting to try them for a long time, and I haven't gotten around to it, so this is convenient. It's great," she said.
Sharon Barnet liked the variety of foods offered and believes that Meet & Eat fosters important community growth. "I love this, and I like to try different foods," she said. "I think it's wonderful because we sit down and talk with people, and we don't have any cell phones in our ears. It's nice to talk."