A little more than two weeks after police pressure drove the Treats Truck out of Midtown, its owner, Kim Ima, is working overtime to ensure her business’s survival. When she founded her mobile bakery in 2007, Ima became one of the first of the so-called gourmet food trucks to hit the streets. She earned a particularly enthusiastic following in Midtown, where she was an almost constant presence.
Ima’s troubles, of course, are shared to some extent by the rest of her fellow truckers, who are also scrambling to adapt to the newly reinforced half-century-old law prohibiting commercial vending in parking spaces. But because the Treats Truck’s income depends on selling a high volume of small-ticket items that are seen more as an indulgence than a necessity, its situation is particularly rocky. Ima certainly plans to stay in business. But, even with the new development of private food-truck courts, she’s facing some pretty daunting challenges.
What’s business been like since you left Midtown?
The real problem for me is that I sell cookies and brownies. I’m not selling you a full meal, so I need to be in a high-density area for lunchtime. My chocolate-chip cookies are a dollar, and so my sales right now, since I’m not there, are at a quarter of what they were. I’m making one-fourth of what I would make on a normal day. What I make in a day is what I would make in two hours at lunch. It’s scary. Yesterday I made so little money between wasted product [and low sales]. I will keep doing it and figuring it out, but I can’t do this for a year.
Are you figuring out any sort of strategy for spots that can replace Midtown?
I’m having to rethink everything, and on top of that, the climate has changed. When I started there weren’t that many trucks, and a lot more territory. Now there are so many trucks and so many restrictions that there’s a much smaller playing space. It takes a lot of research to know where there’s room, who’s already there, and what the neighborhood is like. That takes time. A lot of people are looking at the Financial District. I tried it a long time ago, but there was so much construction that it was too hard to park. I get emails every once in a while saying, “Come to us.” But I get the feeling all the trucks are going to go there and then what, get kicked out a couple of weeks later?
I cannot have my business as I have it set up now. I just can’t. My homework is to do research and walk around and figure out where I can actually go. There’s no place to go — you can’t go anywhere where there’s a meter. You can’t be in a loading zone, you have to be a certain distance away from the crosswalk. If you followed every single thing, I have no idea where you’d go.
It almost sounds like some kind of fiendish brainteaser.
I call it my own private sudoku. [Laughs.] It’s what I used to do all the time: One set of nine is restricted areas from the Health Department. Another set is, What do street signs say? The most important is the third set: What is the reality of that block?
I think it’s a matter of finding out where a truck fits in, and figuring out how much a neighborhood wants the truck. In certain places, it depends — maybe they want one or two, but any more than that is too much for the neighborhood. You have to feel out the whole landscape. And since they’ve wiped out huge sections of the city, all of that is getting shuffled around.
And the police are certainly taking the enforcement seriously.
They are doing their jobs. This is their job; this is what they’re being told to do. I felt they were being very respectful to me — they handled it very nicely, but they were very firm and very honest. These are people who work on the street and know we’ve been here for a long time. It was like, “We know you, you’ve been here, but things are different now.” I felt like they were wishing me well, but they’re not in charge.
[The regulations] were a gray area for a long time. It’s not like we’re opening up a business without permission. We’re legitimate businesses, but now with these conflicting rules and regulations, it’s almost impossible to do what we do. I think it’s a good thing that a lot of the trucks know each other, because we’re not all in isolation. As much as possible, people are checking in with each other. It’s like the storefront is the city. It’s not just each individual for themselves.
I feel like I’ve been reading more about food-truck backlashes in other cities, like Los Angeles.
I think each city is different and they figure out their own system, but this is kind of an awkward stage. All of a sudden theses cities are like, “I have these teenagers in the house and I don’t know what to do.”
Maybe part of the solution is something along the lines of the food-truck lots they have in Portland, or getting hired for private events.
It’s much more compact here. In L.A., if some restaurant or bar invites some truck to be in its parking lot, great, but how many restaurants here have parking lots?
Some people are adapting with food carts.
I think that’ll be the next trend. People will gravitate towards carts because it’s different, and then the Parks Department permits are going to look much more attractive. I would consider having a cart. Though the Treats Cart doesn’t sound as good.
Would you consider a parks permit?
If you have a parks permit, it’s specifically for that park. But that might be really expensive, too. I don’t know if I can afford a parks permit. I’m not saying I couldn’t afford it, but it’s not as easy as the parks come over and you have an invitation.
Do you think you’d try to go back to Midtown, even with the regulations?
I don’t want my customers to be confused, but also, it’s too risky. I don’t want to go out and break the law. It’s very stressful, too, to feel like every day I’m going out and doing something and there could be a cop car behind me.
If nothing else, at least you have the storefront bakery you’re opening in Carroll Gardens. Do you have an opening date yet?
I’m hoping for October. It’s my heart’s desire. Construction should be done in the middle of August. And then my book comes out November 1. It’s dedicated to my customers; it always has been. I’ve been writing for over a year now, and there are pictures of Midtown in the book. It’s so bittersweet now. I’m not going to change anything because it’s been wonderful. I’m so grateful I had four years. They were magical to me. And I’m very grateful I have such good customers, and they’re such a pleasure to serve. From the beginning, I strongly felt that people like to support small businesses. Also, I know there are people who are like, “I’m going to buy from her because she has one truck and she bakes in Brooklyn.” I do the same with my local vendors. Like, there are small bookstores I try to buy a book from every so often because I don’t want there to just be big chains.
Do you think the crackdown will deter people from starting more trucks here?
We all get calls from people who say they’re going to have a food truck. It’s constant because it’s so much fun. There will be some people who say, “I think I’ll sit this one out.” I wouldn’t start one today because it’s hard to imagine investing in something that would be really hard. I would probably be discouraged. I would probably try to get a parks permit because it’s a little bit more direct, or I would consider going to another city.
When I started, I didn’t want to do it anywhere but New York City. I considered doing it in L.A. first because I have family in California. I started the process of moving to L.A. and my heart was in my shoes, and I realized it’s because I have a love affair with New York and I love New Yorkers as customers. I didn’t want to do it anywhere but New York, but if I had to start today I don’t know if I could. I’m not going to go to another city; this is my home. I just have to figure out how to adapt.