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Food Trucks Seek 'That Mystical Spot'

The Rickshaw Dumpling Truck is a retired postal van, painted red and filled with Chinese dumplings. I'm riding shotgun with Kenny Lao, the van's co-owner. It's a weekday morning, and we're driving into Manhattan looking for a killer spot to set up shop for the day.

"I think there is that mystical spot in midtown that every truck owner dreams of," Lao says. "Easy parking. It's a wide sidewalk. There's no restaurant but there's lots of offices."

There are 3,000 year-round food trucks and carts competing for that mystical spot. And no one has an official place to park.

The stakes are high. A good spot on a corner can mean thousands of dollars in business. If you're stuck on a side street, it can ruin your day.

This is a classic economic problem. There is a scare resource worth a lot of money: Parking spaces. How do you keep the competition for that resource from turning into chaos? New York City could auction the best spots to the highest bidder. Economists love auctions!

Instead, the city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.

You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.

"Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park," says David Weber. He's the other owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling, and he just wrote the Food Truck Handbook.

Food vendors avert a full out war through an informal code of conduct. You respect the guy who got there first. If you're a jerk, the other guy can make your day miserable. A hot dog cart, say, can block your truck window and keep you from doing any business at all.

"We've gone to spots before," Lao says, "where the falafel guys and the shish kebab guys will come up and say, 'What's your menu? Do you sell chicken? ... You can't sell chicken on this block. I'm the chicken guy on 52nd St.'"

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many of us know the joys and frustrations of hunting for a good parking spot. Well, imagine if your job, actually your livelihood, depended on finding that perfect spot. That's actually the case for food trucks trying to serve lunch to big city workers. The right spot can make the difference between fortune and ruin. Robert Smith with our Planet Money team rode along with a food truck in the most competitive parking city in the country - the Big Apple.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The race for the perfect parking spot starts early...

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

SMITH: ...and far from the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The starting line is way out here, in a lot in outer Brooklyn, where the food trucks sleep at night.

KENNY LAO: This is so tight and cozy.

SMITH: Do I have to close this?

LAO: Yes, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)

SMITH: I'm inside the Rickshaw Dumpling truck with the co-owner Kenny Lao. It's an old postal van painted red, now filled with steamed Chinese dumplings. All around us in this parking lot are the food truck competition - falafel guys, grilled cheese vans, taco trucks. We're heading into the city, all looking for the same thing.

LAO: I think there is that mystical spot in Midtown that every truck owner dreams of, that is easy parking. It's a wide sidewalk. There's no restaurants but there's lots of offices, and there's a couple of those.

SMITH: As we drive into Manhattan, Kenny Lao says this is the challenge. A couple of mystical spots and yet there are 3,000 year-round food trucks and carts competing for those spots. And it gets more complicated: None of the spots are assigned and yet...

LAO: We've gone to spots before where like, the falafel guys and the shish kabob guys will come up and they're like, What's your menu. Do you sell chicken? And I was like we sell chicken and Thai Basil dumpling with Bell & Evans chicken, fresh Thai basil. And they're like, You can't sell chicken on this block. I'm the chicken guy on 52nd Street.

SMITH: And sometimes it gets ugly out there. Every few months, you hear about some taco truck vender who gets into a fistfight with chicken on a stick guy. I mean actually throwing punches out on the sidewalk. The stakes for this business are high. A good spot on the corner can mean thousands of dollars in business. If you're stuck on a side street, it can ruin you day.

Now this is a classic economic problem. There is a scare resource, worth a lot of money. How do you keep the competition for that resource from turning into chaos? New York City could auction the best spots to the highest bidder - that's what an economist would recommend - but they don't do that. Instead, they try to regulate the mess.

Before I went out on the truck, I walked the streets of New York with David Weber. He's the other owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling. And he just wrote the "Food Truck Handbook." He says New York has the most restrictive rules out there.

DAVID WEBER: So, you need to be at least 20 feet away from the subway. In addition, you can't be within 20 feet of the public entrance to any building.

SMITH: You mean I can't park in front of this restaurant right here?

WEBER: Twenty feet from the entrance that restaurant.

SMITH: Yeah, and there's like a school regulation too.

WEBER: Absolutely, I believe it's 200 feet from a school. And the principle for that is...

SMITH: Ice cream trucks.

WEBER: ...ice cream trucks.

SMITH: It gets even tougher out here. The NYPD has started to give out tickets for selling food from a metered parking spot. In other words, just about every inch of Manhattan.

WEBER: Strictly speaking, following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park.

SMITH: All these restrictions just end up forcing the trucks into even tighter competition. David Weber says when it comes down to it, food truck vendors have to police themselves through an informal code. You respect the guy who got there first. You don't park next to someone who sells the exact same thing. Because if you are a jerk, the other guy can make your day miserable. A hot dog cart, say, can block your truck window and keep you from doing any business at all. That's the law of the street.

LAO: OK. What's going open with the parking here?

SMITH: Back in the Rickshaw Dumpling truck, Kenney Lao has another way to deal with all this competition. He tries to be a little smarter. He searches the city for parking spots that aren't that obvious - maybe in cool neighborhoods with more adventurous eaters.

LAO: I love parking on sunny sides. So, if I know that the sun is going to click over and be sunny right at noon in a certain area, I know that that's going to be really, really awesome, versus the shady side in great weather.

SMITH: An hour before lunchtime, we find it: A wide sidewalk in front of an advertising agency.

LAO: Great. Why don't you hop out?

SMITH: It's a little close to a fire hydrant, but it's as near to perfect as we're going to find. Time to start cooking.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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