Cinnamon Snail owner Adam Sobel learned on Friday that his last remaining vegan truck would cease serving its award-winning tempeh and tofu creations when access to his permit expires on February 28.
On Saturday he posted a message to Facebook equal parts celebration, eulogy, and sign of things to come. “We have thoroughly explored every possible way to continue having our truck(s) on the streets, but it’s time for a change for us,” Sobel’s message read. The sudden announcement came on the truck’s fifth anniversary, months after claiming the Vendy Cup at the Street Vendor Project’s annual awards on Governors Island, his fourth Vendy award for the creative organic cooking that’s become a staple of Manhattan’s midtown lunch scene (and will be the subject of Street Vegan, Sobel’s first cookbook, due out this May).
Sobel started his business in Hoboken in 2010, with only one truck, at a time when the mobile food scene was being quashed in its nascence by the city council. He sourced a permit to operate in New York City in December 2011, just as the Hoboken council voted to quintuple permit fees, relocate trucks away from restaurants, and require they be equipped with GPS devices so city agencies can monitor them.
“That’s why we initially opened in Hoboken,” Sobel told us. “It took us two years to find a permit. But that time really allowed us to smooth out a lot of the kinks. If we got a permit right away in New York, we wouldn’t have succeeded pulling off pretty massive lines so well.”
Acquiring a permit has its challenges: New York City has issued no new permits since 1981, and hasn’t added names to its waiting list since 2007. While most New Yorkers best know the Street Vendor Project as host of the Vendy Awards, which operates as the nonprofit’s largest annual fundraiser, its purpose is to offer free legal aid and lobbying power to a mostly immigrant community of working vendors who often acquire licenses from third parties representing absentee permit holders.
“They find people who want licenses and they match them up; it’s a business,” Street Vendor Project director Sean Basinski told us. “On one hand you can say they are doing a service — they are facilitating a market that exists. On the other hand, they’re exploiting hardworking people. It’s a perpetually broken system.”
Basinski says he’s devastated by the loss of the Cinnamon Snail, and is frustrated his organization can only do so much to battle the bureaucracy and black market governing food truck permits. “The health department knows this goes on, and they’ve taken a policy position that they don’t care. They only care the truck has all the necessary equipment,” Basinski said.
Compared to the underprivileged members of the Street Vendor Project, who rely on the organization for its free legal aid, small-business training, and loan opportunities, Sobel feels fortunate.
“We were doing street vending from a really advantaged background,” Sobel says of himself and his wife. “We know English, we’re U.S. citizens, we know our rights, we have access to loans, we have culinary backgrounds — but 90 percent of [vendors] are disadvantaged, marginalized workers who work a really hard job in New York City where they’re criminalized for what they do.”
Those advantages have taken Cinnamon Snail far. Sobel grew his business to include a second truck, for which he lost access to a permit last November, and prior to that he built out a private, certified kosher commissary in the Pfizer Building on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, where overnight bakers and morning sauciers keep the business running 24 hours a day. While he’s not sure now how he’ll continue to sell food following the loss of his trucks, he knows what he won’t do, like mass-producing his award-winning crème brûlée doughnuts.
“We’d been exploring ideas because we need the extra revenue, but there’s a lot of problems wholesaling stuff,” Sobel says. “I don’t want somebody paying a marked-up price for a two-day-old pastry and that’s their first taste of vegan food.”
Other alternatives are no more appealing to him.
“Bottling sauces, office lunches that we deliver every Friday — none of that is bliss in my life. I like to interact with the people I make the food for. It’s the most rewarding job on earth. They get happy in front of you one after the other. It’s very gratifying work to do,” Sobel said.
In the interim he’ll find that reward teaching cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education and De Gustibus, and making every effort to take care of his employees.
“The first thing I wanted to do was to talk to my whole staff, let them know everyone is getting paid,” he says, recalling the hours after the news sank in. “I’m not going to Pure Food & Wine you guys; I’m not going to declare bankruptcy. I’m not done with running a food business in New York.”
Follow Adam Robb on Twitter, @lifevicarious.