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Looking to Park? So Is Your Lunch

Looking to Park? So Is Your Lunch

The New York Times 7/19/2011

By GLENN COLLINS

THE streets of New York are paved with gold, and Kenny Lao was out there on a recent morning, prospecting.

“I’m not feeling this block: too many parking lots, too many loading docks, kind of dead,” he said as he drove his lumbering red, white and blue Rickshaw Dumpling Truck on 54th Street, east of Broadway, hunting for a new parking spot.

Then, a nugget: a pedestrian mall near the Ziegfeld Theater. “That looks promising,” he said.

“And once all that is out of the way,” he added, pointing to street-side scaffolding, “it just might work.” He moved on.

These days, like miners in the waning days of the California Gold Rush, food-truck operators are panning for parking with new urgency. For it is the season when, for a month now, they have been chased by the police enforcing a recent court ruling forbidding the selling of food from metered spaces. “I spent years building up my locations,” said Kim Ima, who owns the Treats Truck. “Now I’m trying to be creative, looking for neighborhoods where I fit in. But that doesn’t happen overnight.”

For Mr. Lao, the quest for parking is obsession, science and art. His chef-d’oeuvre, which he carries with him as he peels off from his truck and bicycles about town for greater mobility, is a stack of 40 multicolored “location sheets” detailing every site where Rickshaw’s four vans have been.

They identify the kind of parking zone and the nearby office buildings, as well as the presence of food carts and the proximity of banks (for change). There are names of friendly doormen and merchants, and information on local businesses, like advertising agencies, derived from Mr. Lao’s intensive Googling.

And when customers offer them, he collects their e-mail addresses and Twitter I.D.’s, so he can notify them if the truck returns.

In developing a new spot, Mr. Lao looks for streets devoid of construction (“People won’t walk there,” he said). Wide streets and open plazas make his truck more visible to customers. But he no longer clusters with other food trucks, given police scrutiny.

Mr. Lao also maintains distance from street vendors, especially operators of carts with grilled meats, who can fiercely repel a materializing food truck, Mr. Lao said, adding that some have menaced him and his workers and have even moved carts to block Rickshaw trucks’ vending windows.

He also seeks locations that are restaurant-free. Threatened brick-and-mortar merchants can call the police, and one incensed deli owner on the East Side went so far as to give away free dumplings on the street, trying to rout Rickshaw. (“But they were frozen, not like ours,” Mr. Lao said. “They were terrible.”)

A key component of prospecting, Mr. Lao said, is schmoozing, smiling and making nice — with doormen, local merchants and the police, asking permission to inhabit a location for a couple of days a week. A friendly police officer is more likely to shoo a truck than to ticket it or have it towed; a friendly doorman or guard can let him park in a loading zone.

“We’ve never been kicked out by a Starbucks,” said Mr. Lao, 34.

In the morning, he drove the Rickshaw truck (a 20-foot renovated 1997 postal step van) from its garage in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to a new parking spot on Broadway in the theater district.

By 11:18 a.m. the awning was unfurled. A line materialized instantly and was six-deep an hour later.

“Our co-workers told us about Rickshaw, said it was great, but this is our first time,” said Solin Wong, a graphic designer for a publishing company who stood in line with a co-worker, Chris Engstrom, and ordered $6 steamed vegetarian edamame dumplings with lemon sansho dip. Another satisfied customer was the doorman of a nearby office tower; Mr. Lao chatted with him and judged that he would not be shooing away Rickshaw that day.

Mr. Lao declined to reveal his trucks’ revenues, but operators said that savory trucks can take in more than $1,000 on a good day, serving more than 300 people for lunch and 200 for dinner. On a bad day? “No one,” Mr. Lao said.

Suddenly, then, it was 2 p.m. It was time to shutter, reload and roll to a new dinner spot. Some 200 customers had been served.

“Not bad,” the prospector allowed. “For a new spot.”

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