When walking up Science Hill around lunchtime, I find it difficult to resist the glorious smell of sweetly charred arepas and the temptation of joining one of the many long lines of patrons trailing across the sidewalk. Along both sides of Sachem Street, sandwiched between Pauli Murray College and Ingalls Rink, resides a haven of food carts. Monday through Friday from around 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., vendors sell foods from diverse cultures ranging from Ethiopian to Japanese.
When the weather is nice, one can often see a host of students, professors, families seated along the adjacent picnic area, newly established last fall. Chatting over a Styrofoam container filled with spicy curry and pad thai, students often come to meet friends or enjoy the sun.
“You can get a really affordable but good meal, and it’s quick and easy,” said Michael Jensen Sembos, a regular customer who works nearby at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “There’s a lot of options, so, if you go to food cart land, you just know you’ll find something you want and get it quick and for a good price.”
These food carts, however, have not always resided along Sachem Street. On Aug. 15, 2017, 10 of 16 food carts were moved from the Ingalls Rink parking lot to the curbside. The final six carts were likewise displaced on Oct. 15. In addition to the physical adjustment, vendors have faced numerous changes over the past year. In the fall, the two new residential colleges opened, and, for the first time since 2001, the city updated its regulations relating to vendors and peddlers.
“When you think about 2001,” said Steve Fontana, New Haven’s deputy economic development director, “you really think about a world that was different than the one we live in today, both in terms of technology, but also in terms of just how many and what kinds of food trucks and mobile vending there are out there.”
With mobile vending’s increase in popularity over the past decade the city has received a slew of complaints from brick and mortar restaurants, customers and vendors alike, leading to a push for new regulations. Grievances ranged from concerns of cleanliness and proper food handling to uncivil behavior and refusal to comply with city regulations.
“We formed a multidepartmental task force,” Fontana said. “We brought in various stakeholders like Yale University, the hospital, as well as vendors themselves to get a handle on all the problems and figure out what we could do to try to address them.”
In addition, the city formalized special vending districts, such as along Sachem Street, where the demand for vending exceeds the supply of spaces. In these districts, the city now requires vendors to pay an additional fee on top of having a vendor’s permit and insurance. The proceeds from the added fees, however, serve to improve the vending experience for vendors and customers. Within the four special vending districts, the money has allowed for the purchase of certain amenities, including street cleaning services, garbage cans, lighting, electricity for food trucks, as well as hiring a vending enforcement officer to implement the revised ordinances.
These regulatory adjustments along with changes within the university — general construction and the opening of the new residential colleges — have been met with trepidation and uncertainty by some of the vendors along Sachem. Josue Barbosa, who has worked at the Ali Baba’s Fusion food cart for the past 12 years, has noticed a significant decrease in customers, dropping to half of the usual demand.
“To be honest, I didn’t see too much future for food carts,” Barbosa said. “I can tell you maybe like two to three more years, and maybe that’s going to be the end.”
For Alecia Omblero, who has run the Burrito Express cart for the past eight years, much is at stake. An immigrant from the Philippines, she worked in a restaurant with her husband, who owns the adjacent food cart, before deciding to make her own food to sell in order to have more time to spend with her children after work.
Several customers, however, seemed more optimistic.
“It seems the weather is just starting to get warmer, so now we’ll really be able to tell,” Jensen Sembos said. “There was a construction site for a while, too, and that’s kind of off-putting for eating — construction noises and things like that — but I suspect there will be more customers soon than before.”
Albert Horsting LAW ’18, who has frequented the food carts since 2015, is convinced the numbers of customers have increased, especially with the establishment of the picnic area. When considering the effect of opening the new residential colleges, Horsting remained steadfast in his belief that the change would have little effect on the presence of food cart patrons.
Charlene Taylor, the newly hired vending enforcement officer, chalks up many of the fears of vendors to discomfort with change.
“No one likes change,” Taylor said. “Everyone gets settled in their ways and they don’t want to change the way that they have done things, but I can understand how Sachem is a little different because they rely off of the students, and you have 18 vendors all vying for customers.”
Though venders initially met the regulations with fear, she said they seem to be coming on board with the new regulations. When meeting with vendors, Taylor makes sure to emphasize that she is not there to make their lives miserable or to shut down their businesses. Rather, she checks for proper paperwork and licensing in order to protect the vendors from outside, unlicensed vendors. While on duty at one of the vending districts last Saturday, Taylor encountered an unlicensed vendor from Bridgeport.
“The vendors were looking at me, and I’m like this is why we have regulations because now I can tell him these people paid $2,500,” she said. “I could make him leave the area, and so there hasn’t been really too much fighting about the regulations.”
Taylor, too, felt optimistic that food vending would remain a constant presence in New Haven and only continue to grow in the upcoming years. This optimism was echoed by Fontana, who said despite the fears among vendors of more regulations in the future, there are currently no plans for additional regulations.
“We think that the framework we came up with is working well in the main,” Fontana said. “We understand that it was very disruptive in the short term to get used to a whole new system after 10, 15, 16 years of the old system, so we want to let this work for a while.”
Aside from observing a growth of mobile food vending in New Haven, the city has an economic stake in encouraging food vendors and building a firm foundation for future vendors.
“We think vending is one of the things that makes New Haven distinctive. People can count on getting this great food quickly, cheaply, all over the city,” Fontana said. “We think that from an economic development perspective, it’s a great opportunity to help people, primarily immigrants or first generation citizens, to get to the middle class by starting up with very little money initially because cars and trucks don’t cost much money.”
Recent immigrants can prepare food from their home countries and create a business for themselves, which Fontana sees as a win-win situation. Additionally, the very diversity of foods represented by vendors, whether recent immigrants or established businesses branching out into mobile food vending, allows for a convenient and delicious sampling of cultures for customers. From sweet and salty Japanese katsu curry on a bed of fluffy white rice to spiced mashed cauliflower and potatoes wrapped in a flaky, chewy pancake, the fresh variety keeps patrons coming back.
“I think it would be a good thing if this can expand to all over the city,” said Yvan Beke, a student at the University of Connecticut and first-time visitor of the food carts. “That would be great, especially for young professionals working downtown and for students like me, who don’t have time to cook and who don’t want to spend money on fast food.”
Selena Lee | email@example.com