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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Freewheeling! Madison's street-food scene shifts into high gear
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Credit:Chris Hynes

At 9 a.m. in the Banzo kitchen on Sherman Avenue, '70s funk pumps out of speakers high over a spotless stainless-steel prep area as Aaron Collins, Netalee Sheinman and chef Dan Schmitz get ready for lunch service on Library Mall. It will be the first Monday back from spring break, and while it's sunny out, it's also chilly and really windy. For all those reasons, Collins isn't sure what kind of a crowd to expect at the Banzo cart: "The weather has a lot to do with it."

It's also Passover, which means that observant Jews won't be eating pita. "Maybe bring more celery, if people want that instead of pita," suggests Sheinman.

Sheinman is warming pita rounds in the oven, misting them with a spray bottle midway, so they're extra soft and fluffy. The pita is shipped frozen from Israel to a supplier in Chicago, and over the weekend Collins and Sheinman realized that the supply would dry up temporarily - as the bakery, in Jerusalem, would close for a week for Passover. (This necessitated an emergency call to Chicago to have more pita sent here.) The trio figure they have enough of a supply of the white pita bread to make it, but may run out of the whole wheat, the more popular choice.

Schmitz blends the parsley, cilantro, onions, celery and freshly cooked garbanzo beans that will form the falafel in a large grinder. The tub of the mix goes into the cart, as do tubs of freshly sliced potatoes, for fries and chips. Once at the Mall, Collins and a helper form the falafel balls with a cookie scoop and fry them just before the time of order. Collins tries to have enough ready for speedy order fulfillment but not so many that they stop being hot and crispy. If they sit too long, he says, "I'll end up eating them."

It's just one of the many variables that cart owners contend with. Rain means few customers; an unseasonably warm Friday in March meant Banzo ran out of food. "The line," Collins recalls, "was so long, I couldn't see the end of it." He phoned the prep kitchen to get as much food as possible hauled down to Library Mall, but at a certain point, there was nothing more to do. "The garbanzo beans have to be soaked at least two hours before you cook them," Schmitz shrugs philosophically.

Yet even with the ups and downs, Banzo illustrates how food carts are supposed to work. Carts are a lower-cost entrance into the marketplace, where first-time businesspeople can get experience and create a fan base before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Collins and Sheinman are now employers: They hired Schmitz, a veteran of Madison restaurants including Chautara and Dobhan, about a month after they started. "Dan saved our lives," Collins says. "Netalee and I could not keep up. This is way more work than people think it is."

Two more employees help Collins in the cart, while Sheinman concentrates on turning the prep kitchen location into a cafe. The space at 2105 Sherman Ave., which housed the Las Palmas Deli for about four years in the early 2000s, has since hosted a succession of short-lived eateries.

"People get 'the sad face' when we tell them where we are," Sheinman says, but she and Collins point out a number of pluses, including beautiful Burrows Park and Lake Mendota across the street.

Diners nationwide seem to have fallen in love with the idea of mobile restaurants. While carts in Madison have remained a mostly steadfast facet of the lunch scene on the Capitol Square and Library Mall since the 1980s, in other cities, food carts and trucks have generated cultlike followings in the last couple of years, serving everything from breakfast to dinner.

In larger cities, some highly trained chefs looking to open restaurants, but finding the financing too perilous, have opted for serving limited menus of inventive food out of trucks. The genre seems to match the provisional, shifting, pop-up nature of the 2010s so far.

In a land of ubiquitous corporate food, there's something uncomplicated and direct about eating at a food cart. The person dishing up the food often made it, often from his or her own recipe. "We hand-pat every patty with love," one cart posted recently, and they mean it. If customers like something, they say so; there's a smile. Regulars are known by name. It's not fast food, though it's served fairly quickly. It's not always slow food, either - but it is heartfelt food, served without fuss.

Every cart has a story. All you have to do is ask.

Melanie Nelson liked the idea of being her own boss. She started the Good Food cart to serve something healthy, "not burgers and fries," and "as local and organic as possible." Fresh wraps would be quick and fit those criteria. She designed her cedar cart herself and hired a contractor to build it. Her goal: to become the next Chipotle, with wraps on the line instead of burritos.

Luis Dompablo, who's trained as a horticulturalist, not a chef, started Caracas Empanadas instead of opening a Venezuelan restaurant. "With the economy, I decided not to risk so much money," he says.

Dompablo called his mom in Venezuela for authentic recipes; he makes everything himself. Varieties he sells are typically Venezuelan, but Dompablo did have to invent a few vegetarian models, as that's not common there. "Growing up in Venezuela, I never even knew there were vegetarians," he says. He came up with a popular sweet plantain and roasted garlic version, as well as spinach and cheese, plus dessert empanadas - like chocolate-strawberry and apple-cinnamon.

Three days into the operation of Igo Vego, founder Tammy Markee-Mayas is elated with business so far - "better than we predicted," she says. The vegetarian/vegan cart started with Markee-Mayas' feeling that she was "not happy with local fast-food options. I wanted better choices, organic food. I wanted max nutrition, compostible containers and utensils."

She found many elements for the eco-friendly cart at St. Vinny's and the ReStore; she and her uncle built it. It took eight months, and now "I get all teary when I see her," says Markee-Mayas. "She's real."

Madison street vending coordinator Warren Hansen isn't sure which came first - Madison's food cart regulations or the first food cart. What is certain is the first on the scene was Loose Juice in 1976. Hansen says he hasn't had contact with Loose Juice for the last two years, but 1976-2010 is a pretty good run. Another cart from the early 1980s brought Tibetan food to Madison, later becoming the restaurant Himal Chuli, which still serves up momos and more on State Street.

Other carts have made the move to full restaurants, like Buraka, Mango Man/Cafe Costa Rica, and El Burrito Loco. Most recently the late-night cart JD's opened a storefront on Bassett Street; the folks from Santa Fe Trailer have taken over the kitchen at the BSR Tavern in Middleton; and Surco Peruvian is in the process of opening a restaurant on Cottage Grove Road.

Apparently unique to Madison is the city's review process, which takes place annually in September. All carts and anyone new who wants to vend the following year must participate. A panel of eaters samples food from every cart and evaluates, weighting 40% to food, menu and taste; 40% to the look of the cart; and 20% to originality. Carts also rack up seniority points and get subtractions for any code demerits (though this is infrequent).

The scores determine site selection for the coming year. Hansen has never heard of another city that does this and isn't quite sure how Madison decided to start the review process in the first place. "The first record of a review is from '90 or '91," he says, but "the records are not complete." Trying to track down some of the cart history is "like archeology," says Hansen.

Most cart owners accept the review process philosophically. Because all spaces are assigned by the city, there are no "turf wars." The atmosphere is friendly.

Hansen does his best to give carts advice. Still, not every cart is a success, even when the product is popular. Carts close for different reasons, Hansen notes. The owners "get married or have kids or move to Colorado."

One former cart owner, Lindsay Gehl of LMNO'Pies, already had a storefront in Fitchburg when she started vending on the Square, serving savory homemade pasties and sweet pie bites.

"That went really well, so we thought we'd take a shot at the other end [of State Street], and late night," says Gehl. The second cart never did the business that she did downtown, though, and late night "was the worst. We spent more on fees and licenses than we made."

Even business on the Square got bad after the economy crashed: "We felt it. The [furlough] days when state workers weren't there, we definitely took a hit."

Gehl eventually sold the carts and the prep kitchen for personal reasons, and now resides in Oshkosh. Even with the economic downturn, though, "Capitol Square was a very positive experience," Gehl says. "I still get a couple calls a week from people trying to find us."

Sunil Gopal gave the cart business a try for two and a half seasons. "Cooking is my hobby and my passion," says Gopal. "When I'm happy, I cook. When I'm sad, I cook."

He was an IT professional and making good money. "But I wasn't too happy," Gopal remembers. He and his wife moved from Schaumberg, Ill., to Madison, where his brother-in-law was operating a food cart called the Local Stanley.

Inspired, Gopal asked his brother-in-law to build him an identical cart, and he started Spice Yatra, serving four Indian curries a day. "The response was so energizing," Gopal says. But to make enough money to support his young family, "I would have had to have four or five carts. And I was a one-man show, making everything from scratch."

He still cooks for special events like the Overture Center's International Fest, but he's back in IT. Food carts "are more of a young person's business," Gopal reflects.

You won't see anyone serving food out of a vintage Airstream trailer downtown. Madison's carts have specific requirements that put the kibosh on that, and wildly painted school buses, and anything too weird.

Aaron Collins remembers the Connecticut man who built the Banzo cart to Madison specifications saying, "You guys, good luck. I've never seen a city with so many street vending regulations."

Across the U.S., different cities have different regulations for food vending and hence, different scenes. In Chicago, regulations are so strict (no preparing food inside a truck, no parking within 200 feet of a restaurant) that proponents say it's hobbled growth; the fight is on for fewer restrictions. Meanwhile, the police are said to have begun to use rogue carts' Twitter feeds to find and ticket them.

In Milwaukee, food trucks drive around, some gathering together at prearranged spots: on Tuesdays, Schlitz office park; Thursdays at Research Park in Wauwatosa; Fridays at Cathedral Square Park downtown.

In Portland, Ore., carts are usually left in place (unlike Madison, where carts are towed away each day). Portland is also famous for its cart pods. A developer will set up basic services - electricity, water, a tent, tables and chairs, landscaping - in an empty lot and rent spaces. Portland soon will have its first co-op minipod, where four owners banded together to rent and develop the lot.

"City rents are $525 and pod rents are anywhere from $595-$800 a month," writes minipod founder Tim Reece from Portland. "How is a cart owner supposed to make any money, and compete with all the other carts in the rain? I leased our space, we share the rent four ways, and [we] were able to buy a nice covered and heated tent. We make all decisions together and split expenses."

Portland also allows alcohol at some sites. One pod is adjacent to a tavern, where cart foods can be eaten in a modest beer garden. And this spring, the Cartlandia pod was granted a state liquor license to sell beer and wine, although this was opposed by the city.

Warren Hansen definitely doesn't want Madison to go there. The city has tidied up the late-night mobile food business, allowing spots in four areas (Library Mall, North Frances, Broom and West Johnson) adjacent to State Street and quelling a scene on Langdon Street that was "like the wild, wild west," says Hansen.

Rules can and do influence the number of vendors. Currently Chicago has 57, not much more than Madison's 42. In contrast, Portland, with a population of almost 600,000, has about 440 active carts.

Madison is "about at capacity right now, based on the lay of the land," says Hansen. Looking at the Library Mall area, he asks, "Do we need more than 20 food carts in two blocks? Probably not." He observes the situation in Portland and sees "growing pains. We're trying to avoid having them."

Hansen does see room for advancement. His primary focus is "better and better food, and better-designed carts."

The Library Mall is slated for revamping in the summer of 2013 or 2014, and consideration will be given to the kind and amount of seating for eaters, and available electricity. Dedicated seating areas might be nice, say some vendors, but they worry that it will be another thing they'll have to pay for.

The planned Central Park area might be a new site for carts, "depending on if it becomes an office area and what foot traffic there is. If there's not foot traffic, it's not worth it," says Hansen.

Most food carts in Madison are Mall/Concourse vendors precisely because of the greater foot traffic, but carts can set up on most any public property in Madison, "as long as there are no safety hazards and there is enough space," notes Hansen. (Street vending is prohibited in residential neighborhoods between the hours of 9 p.m.-6 a.m.)

While Madison has not ventured toward cart pods as a way to bring vitality to empty areas and act as a spur to development, Mayor Paul Soglin is interested in bringing food carts to neighborhoods for weekly or monthly community-building events. It would be an opportunity for neighbors to sit down and talk to each other over a meal and, in the process, introduce better food into the area.

There's more thinking outside the box from cart owners, too. For instance, Igo Vego recently tried a dinner-hour gig in downtown Middleton. And the Sabores Latinos cart has been parking off Cottage Grove Road on Vernon Avenue, open in good weather for dinner on Fridays and the weekend.

Madison's southeast campus vending area, which has eight sites spread out around University Avenue, Park, West Johnson and West Dayton streets, might also grow somewhat, says Hansen.

So far, southeast has not proved very popular for vendors. The sites are far enough apart that it does not act as an overall magnet. Melanie Nelson, who started her Good Food cart on West Johnson in front of the Educational Sciences building, figures that "there's plenty of foot traffic, but they're all zooming by in the five minutes between classes. Then they're in class, and nobody comes."

Banzo also started in southeast, near Union South. "It's kind of like a training ground there," says Banzo's Dan Schmitz, as carts tweak recipes and get their service rhythm in synch.

"The people there are so supportive," says Banzo's Collins. But in the end, the carts leave for the Square or Library Mall.

Where there's a will, there's a way. Not every mobile food vendor operates with a Mall/Concourse vending license. La Fortuna Mobile Wood-Fired Pizza couldn't get a Mall/Concourse license because having a wood-fired pizza oven was not compatible with the regulation that a cart be self-contained.

"I've thought about how to do it, and I consider myself a creative person," says La Fortuna's Scott Lynch. "It would just be too hot inside."

Instead, La Fortuna uses a portable screened-in porch, where its handmade pizzas are assembled, then fired in the 800-degree oven. Pizzas cook in about 90 seconds.

It operates with a "temporary restaurant" permit from Dane County. This limits the number of days La Fortuna can vend to 27 (Mall/Concourse-licensed carts could theoretically vend 365 days a year). "That works out for us, because we do mostly catering," says Lynch.

Lynch and his wife, Jen, make their from-scratch, local-product pizzas at the Verona Farmers Market and at festivals like the Sugar Maple Music Festival. They also serve at the New Glarus Brewery some summer weekends.

A "serious hobbyist pizza maker since college," Lynch had made a wood-burning oven in his backyard and loved the results. He thought, "What if we made it mobile?" Turns out, mobile wood-fired pizza ovens are fairly popular in the western U.S., and a fellow in Boulder, Colo., manufactures trailers for them. Lynch ordered one.

He credits the Madison/Dane County health department with helping get the business on its feet. "They can be seen as pretty strict, but with all the vendors on, say, Badger football Saturdays, there's the potential for people to do bad things."

Lynch also doesn't mind that rules create a higher standard: "Yes, street food is hot right now, but it's a job like any other job, and people need to be willing to do the work."

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