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Saturday, October 25, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 57.0° F  
MADLAND: A group blog about life in Madison, Wisconsin
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Madland: Downtown Madison food carts keep serving amidst construction
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Few people seemed to be sticking around to eat.
Credit:Alan Talaga

A couple of months ago here on Madland, Catherine Capellaro pointed out the (perhaps unnecessary) removal of trees from the State Street Mall, often referred to more generally as part of UW Library Mall, as part of a renovation project between Lake and Park streets. Now, well into summer, I wanted to check in and see how the construction is affecting food cart owners and their customers who frequent the area.

As the central section of the pedestrian artery is torn up, some carts can be found along the East Campus Mall, an intersecting walkway that runs between the Chazen and Library Mall. Other carts have set up on Lake Street between Memorial Library and the 600 block of State Street. It is a functional set-up, but is not idea. Before construction started, the clustering of carts between the library and the University Book Store made it much easier to browse menus, and maybe even peek at somebody else's order before making your own choice.

Rob Fontella, a UW-Madison employee, notes construction has impacted how often he frequents the carts.

"For the last couple years, I'd probably eat there at least once or twice a week," he says, "This year, I've only gone down there a few times. I've been bringing food from home more often. So it has helped me save money."

John Lendved, a colleague of Fontella, thinks the weather might have more to do with how often he frequents the food carts.

"June was so rainy, I'm not sure I would have gone to the carts much even without construction," he says.

While some UW employees say they're getting lunch from the carts less often, vendors say they haven't seen much of a slowdown. Kim Nguyen of the Natural Juice smoothie cart says she is still selling plenty of her popular spring rolls.

"I've been busy," she says. "Sometimes the same people have been coming a few times a week."

When I stopped by food carts a few times last week, there did seem to be consistent lines of customers on both East Campus Mall and Lake Street. However, few people seemed to be sticking around to eat. In previous summers, it seemed like every square inch of concrete in the area was occupied by cart diners.

"We've taken our food back to the office," says Lendved. That's possibly a more productive choice, but not nearly as fun.

A walk over to the Memorial Union Terrace revealed more than a few diners who had decided to carry their meals over to the land of sunburst chairs.

Meanwhile, this displacement has also led to more carts taking up weekday positions around Capitol Square, and there are of course a good number in place there on Saturdays at the Dane County Farmers' Market.

It's a comparative feast at that end of State Street, but one that will likely be temporary as the construction down on campus wraps up this fall.

Luckily, opportunities to eat at food carts are expanding out of downtown.

Fontella has been making less lunch trips, but he hasn't given up the carts all-together. "Some of the carts come to my neighborhood once a week," he says. "I appreciate that."

Over the last few years, evening events such as Madison Meet and Eat and Let's Eat Out bring food carts into other various city neighborhoods over the summer. Carts also make appearances at some of the neighborhood-oriented farmers' markets around town.

Portions and prices generally remain the same, which Fontella appreciates. "What can be a bit of a pricy and heavy lunch ends up as just about the perfect dinner," he notes.

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