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

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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.

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  1. I envision a glorious future where food truck vendors are driven off social media and forced to peddle on sites like silk road.

    1. And in which a poor woman trying to sell her family empanadas gets flash grenaded by a SWAT team running a sting operation after lurking on the darknet.

      1. …and they discover that she refrigerates raw meat on the shelf above the vegetables, so they send her up on bio-terrorism charges (to wit: manufacture of a salmonella dirty bomb)

    2. Nothing says fresh like “From Newfoundland”

  2. yknow there almost is! “feastly” is supposed to be sort of that idea, i guess. i haven’t used it (not a lot of opportunity to in new hampshire), but i think it would be better for everyone if these people just behaved and got government benefits, rather than trying to actively improve their own situations by selling people something they want. what do you think this is, the “land of opportunity” or something?

  3. it is on the “clearnet” though. what i would like to see, or to have seen before california got a little more reasonable about it, is someone selling foie gras on a silk road type thing.

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  5. So happy I can get these food trucks in Virginia. They come to my office every week! 🙂

    1. I’m near Dulles. They were dreadfully overpriced, like $9 for a pulled pork sandwich when I can get one for $6 on the side of Rt 15 up near Point of Rocks

  6. “The Health Department wants people to know that it’s not safe to purchase food from people who are cooking in a non-commercial home kitchen… but these are examples of a trend that threatens public health.”

    Why can’t they just say that the safety isn’t guaranteed? Or that it has been checked in any way? Caveat emptor?

    They would still have jobs inspecting this stuff. Their little fifedoms would go on without interruption. They simply wouldn’t have their hands in EVERYFUCKINGTHING.

    1. including your butt, meat puppet?

    2. Have they presented any evidence that the food is ‘unsafe’? To what degree? Maybe they should say ‘less safe’ because any food is not 100% safe.

      Like, if I got a govt sanctioned tamale, I have a 0.01% chance of getting sick, but if I eat an unlicensed one, the risk doubles to 0.02%.

    3. Ummm….don’t people cook in ‘non-commercial’ home kitchens every day?

      Why aren’t the emergency rooms overflowing with food-borne illnesses all over the land?

      Oh, I know. Maybe the reasons for all the food safety regulations don’t REALLY have anything to do with food safety.

      1. I wrote to the Tacoma Health Dept:

        To what degree is the food ‘unsafe’? Can you cite studies? Would it better to say ‘less safe’ because no food is truly 100% ‘safe’?

        People barbeque in their backyards for their own consumption on a regular basis, and I assume that’s ‘safe’. Why is selling the same food to others then deemed to eb ‘unsafe’?

        and they replied

        Thank you for contacting us regarding the safety of food sold to the public from home kitchens. You are correct it is impossible to know if any food is 100 percent safe; however, it is our responsibility to ensure that food sold, sampled, or given away in Pierce County is from a licensed and inspected source. When a person is barbequing for themselves in their backyard it is considered a private party and we do not permit or inspect private events that people hold at their home. The inspection process that a permitted business undergoes throughout the year is designed to ensure that they are preparing the food safely and are following the food code requirements that are based on science and the FDA guidelines. When it is a private party at someone’s home they are typically working with limited amounts of food that will be served immediately; however, when a person is running a food business from their home they are intending to prepare and sell a large quantity of food from a home-style kitchen that is not capable of preparing large amounts of food safely.

      2. but they didn’t say anything about how unsafe the food is in comparison to a normal home meal or a restaurant.

        They appeared to focus on keeping large quantities of food at the proper temperatures. Which reminds me – what of those open air meat markets I see in Africa, where millions buy their food?

  7. “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,”

    So if whoever does the cooking in your family sells it instead of just putting it on the table, it becomes “unsafe”.
    My goodness! I didn’t know the transfer of money had such effects!

    1. Money = evil.

      Ipso facto, other people exchanging money taints the nearby food, causing spontaneous generation of disease.

      1. exactly! if you’re cooking for your family you care if you make anyone sick, but all these selfish capitalists care about is profit. which doesn’t have anything to do with making people or sick or not.

  8. I can only imagine the fear boners that some of NYC’s regulators would get if they could see the church around the corner from me in Brooklyn. Not only do they have cookouts where ANYONE who walks by can eat a burger, but they have CHILDREN running around, potentially exposed to dirty unlicensed meat preparation!

    Man am I glad I grew up while these regulators were still ironing out the last bits of their sanity. Pretty sure my friends and I would have gone to jail over our illegal lemonade stands.

  9. The government is the enemy of freedom, the black market is true capitalism. Fuck the government, you’ll feel better for it.

  10. No soup for you!

  11. You know, sometimes it’d be nice for people to stake out a position that’s somewhere in between “Let’s all serve salmonella out of the back of a van” and “Let’s take out this taco truck with a swat team”.

    I get kind of annoyed at the idea that the only response to onerous government intrusion in private business is complete deregulation and no-oversight of business. This is like telling a teenage girl that the only alternative to abstinence is staring in a gang-bang video.

    I think the highlighting of the cottage food laws done by this article is good, but I find some of the responses in the comments to be absurd. Caveat emptor? Really? Would you like to try one of my e.coli burritos? The secret ingredient is… e.coli.

    People tell me people aren’t this stupid.

  12. Years ago I nearly died alone in a hotel thanks to food poisoning acquired in a licensed, inspected restaurant. Licensing doesn’t mean something is safe, it just means someone has paid the government their customary bribe. If licensing really worked everything licensed, from restaurants to doctors, would be perfectly safe. The fact licenses are often revoked in itself proves licensing accomplishes little other than a source of revenue.

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