Food Trucks

Social Media Helps Food Vendors Dodge Regulators and Find Customers

When what you want is an illegal treat from a favorite underground source, Facebook may be the place to look


If you have a hankering for pork, beef, or pineapple tamales, and I sometimes do, the parking lot of the local Walmart is a good place to pick them up. Some local people with entrepreneurial spirit and culinary talent peddle their wares to shoppers returning to their cars with laden carts and appetites to match. It's the perfect match between eager (and talented) sellers and willing buyers, even if the trade is technically illegal under Arizona's (comparatively generous) cottage food law. Arizona allows the unlicensed sale only of baked goods and candy and not "potentially hazardous" treats. Sometimes, though, you need something a little more substantial than a muffin.

But catching up with the tamale vendors can be a hit-or-miss proposition. They don't keep regular hours, so sometimes you have to go home empty-handed—except for the 40 pound bag of dog food purchased inside the mega-store, that is. That's not an uncommon problem for underground food vendors. But the desire of cooks to come together with customers has found a way in the form of social media, where meetings are arranged and information shared, often through closed Facebook groups. That's a handy innovation for cooks and consumers alike – and one guaranteed to drive regulators around the bend.

"The Health Department wants the public to know it's not safe to purchase food from people who are cooking in a non-commercial home kitchen and selling food through Facebook or barbequing in the backyard and selling it at a garage sale," Washington's Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department hyperventilated earlier this month. "And it's not legal," they added. "But these are examples of a trend that threatens public health."

It is, of course, perfectly safe and legal to drop by a garage sale and munch on a complimentary burger so long as the only money that changes hands is for a vintage lava lamp. Even if you heard about the garage sale on Facebook. It's—somehow—dirty lucre that summons the dread specter of danger.

When the News-Tribune followed up with the Health Department's Amanda Peters about the perils of social media snacking, she told them that the danger is growing—and difficult to suppress.

"Many of them operate through buy/sell/trade groups through Facebook. Some of them have their settings set as private. Some of them have thousands of members."

I'll note that I'm aware of Facebook groups based near me that advertise food for sale. They're open to the public, though, so I'm not inclined to be too specific. And they suffer from a sad dearth of tamale vendors.

Austin's Food Trailer Alliance offers a marketing slideshow that specifically encourages connecting with potential customers through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Flickr, and Youtube. The effort isn't specifically targeted at unlicensed businesses, but it points to strategies usable by any vendor with an Internet connection.

Colorado's Four Course Marketing says that "Social media has become an essential tool for this branch of the industry" because vendors are "usually mobile, and without utilizing multiple platforms with regularity, dining guests have no idea how to track them down."

Launched in Lexington, Kentucky, the Follow That Food Truck! app for iPhones and Android devices helps foodies find their favorite food sellers in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.  Similar apps, most locally based, provide the same service around the country and beyond.

This is part of a phenomenon that Baylen Linnekin, a frequent contributor to Reason refers to as Foodways 2.0. "Social media has made possible mobile-food vending in areas (like Washington, D.C.) where it was previously difficult or illegal," he wrote in the introduction to American University's Food, Media, and Culture Journal 2013. "It also facilitates other legal food transactions (i.e., helping draw customers to temporary pop-up restaurants) and even facilitates illicit food transactions (i.e., helping draw customers to underground restaurants, food black markets, and unlicensed street-food vendors)."

It may have been tech-savvy and cosmopolitan San Francisco that took underground vending to the next level with gourmet offerings matched up with marketing savvy. Peddling desserts from an unlicensed cart for three bucks a pop, Curtis "the Crème Brûlée guy" Kimball featured in a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article on a surge in largely underground street food in the city. Kneecapped by the recession, city residents turned to the old standby of selling sustenance, only to run into the city's byzantine red tape.

"People are losing their jobs. They think they might be able to start small. But when they find out about the regulations involved, they might not follow through," Ray Ong of the city's Department of Public Health told the Chronicle.

They didn't follow through on navigating the licensing process, that is. But they did open for business, creating a "caravan of food sellers who connect to their customers via social networking Web sites like Facebook and Twitter."

Curtis is still going strong with the crème brûlée, by the way. He's built his way to permitted respectability with a brick-and-mortar store and has over 23,000 Twitter followers. But he might never have made it past the legal hurdles to entrepreneurial success if he hadn't ignored them.

That's a common problem. The Street Vendor Project notes that New York City limits food pushcart licenses to "about 3,000 city-wide. The Department of Health holds lotteries every few years to distribute any excess permits, but the average wait is still more than a decade."

Matthew Shapiro, staff attorney for the Street Vendor Project, points out that this such hurdles drive people to sell illegally. He urges that city officials' concerns about black market vendors could probably be largely satisfied by easing the regulatory process.

Maybe the city's stiff regulations are meant to fill the city's coffers with fines against lawbreakers. But such a large proportion of civil vending fines go unpaid—$14.9 million of $15.8 million levied in 2009—that the city is now considering the once-unthinkable: seriously loosening regulations and allowing underground vendors to come up for air.

That's been the approach taken elsewhere in the country, where cottage food laws, like the Arizona one mentioned above, have eased regulations for small-scale operators who might be otherwise driven underground by onerous regulations. The Forrager cottage food community tracks progress in this area, which has been substantial in recent years.

But cottage food laws are only as permissive as government officials want them to be. And if officials give the nod only to baked goods when what you really want is a pork tamale, it's a relief to know there are often easier ways to find your fix than trawling the parking lot at Walmart.