Madison WI

How do you determine where food carts should be located?  By rating them, of course.

In Madison WI, one of the top college towns in the US, there are around 30 food carts that park on the Library Mall and Capitol Concourse in the warm weather.  When they return to the streets next spring, not all will be in the same spots.  Street placement is determined by rankings carts receive for the year, and rankings are determined by a formula that balances seniority, any demerits received, and taste-test rankings.  Tasting rankings are weighted 40% to food, menu and taste, 40% to the look of the cart, and 20% to originality.

At the end of September, the Mall-Concourse food carts were evaluated by a 22-person tasting review panel.  Testers have a week to sample and evaluate food from the vendors.  It’s a task, with chowing at four to six carts a day necessary to get the job done.  The testers are a group of volunteers; most are city of Madison employees.  Dave Rihn, safety coordinator for the city, has served on the panel for about 10 years: “[Warren] knew that I was a walker and ate from the food carts fairly often,” he says. “We’re not experts, and there are disagreements. You try to be fair — it’s these people’s livelihoods.”

Possibly as a consequence of the “appearance” category, there’s been a move to more elaborate carts — the homemade wooden versions replaced with metal trailers wrapped with intense graphics, even with speakers playing music. The 26-year veteran Wei’s Food To Go replaced its original wooden stand with a metal one wrapped with a dragon design.

Rihn, like other testers, is impressed with the food: “I remember the first time I ate at Ingrid’s Lunch Box, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ My wife said, ‘Can we come back here?'” Ingrid’s, indeed, was picked by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the top 10 food carts in the nation. [Isthmus/The Daily Page]

I don’t think this would work in NYC for several reasons, and the city determining where carts should be placed was one of the reasons for the failed food cart experiment in Toronto last year.  However, it seems to work in Madison, a much smaller place.

By the way, I would love to see all food vendors in NY (restaurants, trucks, carts, etc) get rated with an A, B, C or D, as they do in LA.  I find this to be very useful when in LA.