Let’s imagine a pleasant summer weekend afternoon spent on foot in downtown Minneapolis. You’ve had a great brunch at Hell’s Kitchen, and you’re spending a few hours window-shopping on Nicollet Mall, with your final destination being the Orpheum Theater or Orchestra Hall. Or perhaps you will take the beautiful, newly-restored Loring Greenway to walk from Nicollet to Loring Park and the Walker Art Center. At around five o’clock, though, your memory of brunch is fading, and you’re getting hungry again. Not wanting to spoil your dinner — you have late reservations at the 112 Eatery for after the show — you just need something cheap and fast to tide you over for a few hours. What you need is a hot dog.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to find one where you’re spending your afternoon — not without making a special stop for it, at least. Minneapolis has many charming urban amenities, all within walking distance of each other. One amenity typically associated with walking between these points in an American city that we do not have, however, is street food.
Why is this? The great Dara Moskowitz, herself a New York native, puzzled over this in a 1999 article in City Pages: “Yes, at the State Fair there is an ocean of street food. But there’s no Pronto Pup stand on Nicollet Mall, no walleye-on-a-stick booth on St. Peter.” This is true: there isn’t.
This is not to say there’s a complete lack of street food to be found in the Cities. You can occasionally find stands along East Lake St. selling flavored ice and Mexican delicacies. Hot dog stands appear in the summer months outside bars or restaurants once in awhile, most notably outside Grumpy’s Northeast. A 2006 article in the StarTribune on this topic claims there are at least 25 active, licensed mobile food stands in downtown St. Paul, selling everything from mini-doughnuts to grilled sandwiches to gyros. However, every time one runs into this sort of stand, it seems more like the exception than the rule. There simply doesn’t seem to be a pervasive culture of street food here the way there is in other American cities.
The best way to begin looking at this is to note that this hasn’t always been the case. Reading newspaper accounts from the end of the 19th century, one is presented with a scarcely recognizable vision of Minneapolis as bustling, foot traffic-heavy city positively choked with street vendors. Particularly around the intersections of busy downtown thoroughfares, such as Hennepin and Washington, a multi-ethnic panoply of fast, cheap dining options were available to your average Minneapolitan on the street. Roasted chestnuts were very popular, along with delicious fare such as peanuts, bananas, peaches, hot dogs, bratwurst, pretzels, fried ham-and-egg sandwiches, and – perhaps surprisingly – hot tamales. In fact, there seems to have been somewhat of a mania for corn husk-wrapped tamales among Minneapolis street food connoisseurs of the late 19th century, as the tamale cart is nearly ubiquitous in accounts of the street food scene of that era, as well as gentle, corny chastisements from newspapers to the “red hot man” for “producing dyspepsia and consequent family quarrels.”
The dark side to the good governance Minnesota has historically been known for, though, is a certain civic paternalism, which comes into full view right around the end of the century. Beginning in the 1890s, one can clearly trace a paper trail through newspaper accounts of the city’s escalating battles with the street vending community, as local government began clamping down hard on outdoor food sales. The reasons are numerous – much of the food one could buy was not of the best quality, with many of the fruit vendors apparently purchasing day-old produce from grocers, and passing it off as fresh. A few local journalists sniffed that street vendors were déclassé, tacky, taking business from “legitimate” foodsellers. At worst, they were considered a public nuisance. There is an uncomfortable whiff of pervasive institutional racism to much of the coverage of street food vendors; an 1888 profile in the Minneapolis Tribune describes these “odd people” as “dirty looking individuals” that are “not infrequently of the colored persuasion.” In that same piece, street food vendors are pictured as a noisy, unpleasant nuisance, “howl[ing] loudly” in a Chico Marx pidgin: “frash rostet ches-nutta, 5 cent a sacka.”
Additionally, there were public health concerns not related to the quality and freshness of the food; it’s not uncommon to come across newspaper accounts from the early 20th century of automobiles smashing into street carts, or even worse, of gas-powered carts and cooking apparatuses exploding, damaging buildings, creating fires, and injuring the vendors. “A few overcooked wieners,” chuckled one contemporary account of such a fire.
In 1893, the city council passed the first licensing ordinances, making it illegal to operate a food cart without a $75-a-year license — an exorbitant amount when one considers that $75 in 1893 is over $1,700 in contemporary dollars. This seems to have effectively priced out quite a few would-be vendors, many of whom were hardscrabble immigrants. Two years later, an ordinance was passed definitively banning “sandwich wagons and push carts from the business center of the city,” an area defined as extending from the river to 7th St. S., and 2nd Ave. N. in the Warehouse District to 3rd Ave. S. Exactly how strictly this was enforced is uncertain, though the vendors were said to be “considerably agitated.”
St. Paul passed a similar ordinance in 1902, leading Minneapolis Tribune columnist Ralph Wheelock to wryly note that “the Pharisees of the St. Paul Council have driven the sandwich and hot tomale [sic] Publican from the street corners. Just how the odor of fried ham could contaminate the highly moral atmosphere of the capital city does not appear in the ordinance.” Whatever burgeoning street food culture was incubating on the streets of the core cities seems to have been pushed out of sight by the early 20th century.
This is not to suggest that there was some sort of conscious conspiracy to systematically destroy street food culture in the downtown areas. However, a cursory look at the development of downtown Minneapolis through the 20th century reveals nothing particularly amenable to fostering such a culture. Consider this timeline: the advent of automotive culture and the subsequent rise of the drive-in as a one-stop destination for cheap dining (introduced from car-crazed California); the flight of white-collar jobs to the suburbs and the decline of downtown as a residential area; the destruction of the Gateway District in the 1960s and the creation of parking lots and sprawling downtown corporate campus-styled developments in its place; the implementation of the skyway system during that same period, which, for all of their cold weather convenience, have largely sucked the life off of downtown streets and created a two-tiered system of interacting with the urban fabric. Minneapolis, more than its metropolitan counterparts on the East Coast, has never consistently valued pedestrian-friendliness and density. But couple any one of these factors in with limited licensing opportunities and the half-year winters, and it’s easy to understand why an entrepreneur who is considering owning and operating an outdoor hot dog stand would conclude it’s not worth the hassle.
The current laws on the subject are interesting; they’re not as stringent as they were at the dawn of the 20th century, but do bear traces of the same impulses. Food vendors are forbidden to operate outside of virtually the same area they were once pushed out of, downtown south of Washington, north of 10th St., west of 2nd Ave N. and east of Portland. They are of course still regulated heavily, requiring a license and frequent inspections by the Department of Health.
If there is a definition of any sort of street food in urban Minnesota, it is the wildly imaginative offerings at the State Fair, which are varied enough to constitute a de facto street food cuisine — the Pronto Pup and the such-and-such-on-a-stick are probably almost as easily identified with Minnesota as the poor boy is with New Orleans, or the Coney Island dog is with Detroit. Weekly urban farmers’ markets, too, such as the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market on Lyndale Ave. and Nicollet Mall, create an opportunity for ambulatory dining — the website even implores you to “escape the skyways.” These are not ongoing affairs, however, but regularly scheduled events, limited in time and space. They don’t exist, in the case of the former, outside of the confines of the Fairgrounds, and in the latter, outside Thursdays on Nicollet Mall. They’re not a regular, fully integrated part of day-to-day experience.
The obvious answer to the question of why there isn’t a stronger street food culture here is, as with so much here, “the weather.” And while that certainly has something to do with it, it perhaps has as much to do with local government intervention and questionable urban planning decisions as anything. It’s difficult to not delight at an 1896 description of the corner of Hennepin and Washington, a scene where “street vendors of all kinds do a flourishing business, the banana man and the man with his free stone peaches,” and “the chestnut man plying his profession,” and then wonder how it might have worked out differently.
Special thanks to Rae Eighmey and Aleah Vinick at the Minnesota Historical Society for their assistance with this story.
UPDATE: The Heavy Table seeks out the not-missing street food in Minneapolis-St. Paul
There is a sad lack of street food in these parts, but if you dig around you can find it. As mentioned there are the farmers markets. Clancey’s grills up brats outside in summer. I usually hit the Vienna Beef stand on Nicollet mall a few ties a year. Although the Chef Shack is usually just at the markets they are starting to make a few more appearances outside of that realm as well. Also, I think the folks that run Sea Salt have taken over the Lake Harriet concessions stand and will be giving it a significant overhaul – OK, maybe it isn’t “street food” but it’s “walking path” food.
Great write-up, but now I’m depressed thinking about our lack of street food options here.
I’ve often wondered about the lack of street food in the Twin Cities. Thanks for the write up.
How does our lack of street food compare to other west of the Mississippi cities like St. Louis, KC, Denver, Seattle and Portland?
I have been complaining about the lack of street food around these parts for years. Walking around Lake Phalen in St. Paul, the demographics suggest Hanoi rather than Minnesota. The critical element missing is the stalls selling friend noodles, dumplings, soup and other delights. I’m sure our southeast Asian neighbors miss these as well.
I’m sure the hassle of licensing and inspections keeps the entrepreneurs away from the lakes and the dumplings away from my stomach.
Actually, my friends and I might start a taco stall/truck on Hennepin in a year or two. We have some contacts in the city council, so hopefully it’ll work out smoothly. Keep your fingers crossed!
I don’t eat at Mexican restaurants on the west coast. The best food is found at the taco trucks which eventually turn into the best Mexican restaurants. Tip: while on the coast, maintain a keen eye for the small restaurants with dilapidated trucks parked out back- yu’re guaranteed good meal. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was in NW Seattle at a taco truck. It even had a “dining room” which was just a family tent with a propane heater next to the truck. In fact, I may leave my job at 3M just to live somewhere that street vendors are allowed :). Shhhh… don’t tell Pawlenty or Bachman.
Look at Portland for example with it’s silmlarly dismal though less frigid climate and its resurgence of culture: Fried lamb’s brain at Le Pigeon, Eel at Genoa, etc, etc. It’s a city with many parallels to this area (minneapolis, grand ave, etc.) Inspired by all things peasant. They focus the neighborhoods which are in transition- dying industrial economies with budding art/music scenes, “hipsters”, etc, etc. They are dirty yet honest and productive. In PDX there are vibrant communities surrounding the street vendors. Parking lot owners rent space around the periphery of their property. Everything from sushi to tripe can be found and divoured safely. These vendors are up-and-coming entrepreneurs who actually give a damn about food quality and they eventually build lasting culinary establishments rooted in family tradition. In one word- they’re DEEP.
Point of fact: street vendors are the people who ultimately start amazing restaurants. Without them it’s a bit like the Twins not having a farm team and it results in a culinary landscape where the only folks who open restaurants are ex-wall street egomaniacs with psychotic Chanel-carrying wives and money to burn. They hire cocky schmucks out of culinary school as the “chef” (not Pablo who knows his shit and can hussel). They inevitably produce some form of dreaded “fusion” a.k.a. walleye fish tacos or venison qeusadillas. These owners ultimately proceed to play the roll of Humphrey Bogart- at least until the place closes when folks shun their pretentious bullshit ad move on to the next hot thing pomped by the local paper.
We’re talking about a loss of culture. “Subsidize the Olive Garden and run out the street vendors”. There are (of course) places to find food made with love locally, but I often find it on the street corner. In SE Mpls you can get fried pig skin but it’s far more dangerous eating at something that resembles a lemonade stand than it is to allow them the truck which is far better equipped and simply regulate/inspect as needed.
In all honesty, being a Minnesotan by birth, then leaving here, experiencing the real world in all of its glory and then coming back has definitely left a void. It is a void of culture which could in part be remedied by laxing laws on our street vendors and doing everything in our power to vote out those in office who propel the sterile Lutheran environment.
Bottom line: peasant food is where haute cuisine begins. It will be very hard for Minnesota to catch up to the coasts without street vendors- no matter how many Time McKees move to town.
Anybody actually interested in the Minneapolis code regarding sidewalk cart food vendors can see all the rules here: http://library4.municode.com/default-test/template.htm?view=document&doc_action=setHitDoc&doc_hit=1
Items pertaining specifically to food carts are in Chapter 188.510
Is there a pedal-powered taco stand in MPLS’ near future? No, but maybe in the not-too-distant future.
The question is what do we do about it? I have many chef and cook friends who have wanted to set up street carts for years, only to have the wind taken out of their sails by the powers that be. What’s the next step?
The woeful lack of street food or street culture here in the Twin Cities is a shame but it’s not just the bureaucracy to blame. Yes, there is the ever pesky red tape; there are restrictions on times, locations, mobility; there are risks like any other business but the greatest obstacle: people. After failing to acquire the necessary permits, etc, etc. we decided to do our own thing our own way – highly mobile street food operating near and post bar close in the downtown area – I was SHOCKED in how it was initially received.
After running the season last year there was a following of sorts but far, far too often there were responses that ranged from accusations that we were poisoning people (we’re both serve-safe certified) to outright confusion (like they thought we were just handing out free food).
When they got it, they loved it. Let’s just hope more folks figure it out.
A few nights ago, I swear I saw a taco truck on University Avenue by Target in St. Paul. I’m going back to look and try it out if I can find it. I hope it’s there.
The farmers markets have some nice things. The Midtown farmers market sell some of the best tamales I’ve ever had.
I saw the same taco truck today outside the Midway SuperTarget. Borders Tacos it said, and that it takes credit cards. I’d love to hear a review.
The best street food in Minneapolis is the incredible Chef Shack, (http://chefshack.org/) where you can find:
*falafel on holy land pita with hummus, tiziki sauce
*thai donuts with a lemongrass and ginger thai coffee syrup
*soup and sandwich combo for $5
*pulled pork nachos and sandwiches
*all natural grass fed beef hot dogs
*hand cut fries
*home made ketchup and relishes
The Chef Shack will be stationed at Mill City Farmer’s Market – 8:00 am – 1:00 pm – Every Saturday from May 9th through October 17th and Kingfield Farmer’s Market – 9:00 am – 1:30 pm – Every Sunday from May 31st through November. And watch out for The Chef Shack around town this summer!
Thanks for the article, Andy. This has been a question I’ve wondered about for a long time. I lived in a little town in Iowa for about 5 years during college and they had tons of street food, so why can’t we??? I’m definitely doing some more research on the matter.
In support of the author’s comments, here’s one section of the Mpls municiple code regarding street vendors. An ordinance tangle that would scare any entrepreneur away–Somebody call a lawyer quick!
188.510. Sidewalk cart food vendors. Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 188.110, 188.480(8), 427.110 and 427.130 of this Code, licenses may be issued pursuant to section 259.30 for sidewalk cart food vendors for the sale of specified food and beverage items from mobile pushcarts on the public sidewalks, which shall be operated and conducted in accordance with the following conditions:
(1) Each sidewalk cart shall be separately licensed and may operate only at the location specified in the license, except as permitted in subsection (20). However, in the event a licensee holds licenses for more than one (1) location, the licensee may place any of the licensee’s licensed carts at any location for which the licensee holds a license. No licensee may trade carts or locations with another licensee; however, should a licensee apply for and be granted a different location for a cart during the licensing year and chooses to surrender the original location for that cart, the fee for such midseason cart location transfer shall be the fee indicated in section 188.250 of this Code for transfer alone.
(2) Application procedure:
a. Each applicant shall file an application with the department of licenses and consumer services on forms provided by the department. In addition to the requirements of section 188.180 of this Code, the director of licenses and consumer services may require such information on the application as the director considers reasonable and necessary.
b. No application for a single license or for the first of several licenses shall be accepted for filing unless the applicant files therewith plans and specifications for the cart which have been approved by the manager of environmental health. Provided, however, that if the cart is not ready and available for inspection sixty (60) days after the application is filed, the applicant’s proposed operating location shall be available to other applicants, and the applicant shall be required to select a new location.
No application from a single applicant for licenses beyond a first license shall be accepted for filing unless the applicant possesses sidewalk carts ready and available for inspection for each location beyond the first location. A single applicant, for the purposes of this section, shall mean an individual person, or any member of that person’s immediate family and shall also include a corporation and any corporation with substantially the same ownership or ownership by persons of the immediate family of the stockholders of that corporation or partnership.
c. Each applicant shall include in the application a proposed operating location. The proposed location shall be referred to the director of public works for the approval or disapproval. The director of public works shall not approve a location where a sidewalk cart would substantially impair the movement of pedestrians or vehicles, or pose a hazard to public safety. Further, the director of public works shall not approve any location which is adjacent to a bus stop, taxi stand, or handicap loading zone, within fifty (50) feet of an intersection, within three (3) feet of a curb, or directly in front of a commercial entryway. If the applicant’s proposed location is disapproved, the applicant shall be so notified, and the applicant may select an alternate location, which shall also be referred to the director of public works for approval or disapproval. A holder of a valid license for the previous license year may renew that license and thereby reserve that location for another license year. Any license not renewed by April fifteenth shall cause that location to become available to other applicants. Licenses may be renewed between April first and April fifteenth by the payment of a late fee in addition to the license fee. All licensees shall be notified of the availability of locations which have been vacated or for which licenses have not been renewed. The notification shall include a due date for applicants for these locations and a date upon which a lottery will be held to choose among multiple applicants.
d. The director of public works shall refer the subject of sidewalk cart food vendors on the Nicollet Mall to the advisory board provided for in Minnesota Statutes, Section 430.101, subdivision 3. The advisory board shall report its recommendations concerning the number and location of sidewalk cart sites on the Nicollet Mall to the director of public works. The director of public works shall review the board’s report and prepare a list of approved locations on the Nicollet Mall. The list shall be available in the department of licenses and consumer services to any applicant or interested person.
e. No location which has been chosen in a previous application shall be available for selection.
(3) All sidewalk cart food vendor licenses shall expire on April first of each year subject to renewal year to year thereafter.
(4) No sidewalk cart shall have dimensions exceeding four (4) feet in width, eight (8) feet in length and eight (8) feet in height. However, a cart may be equipped with an awning which overhangs by not more than twelve (12) inches in any direction. Each sidewalk cart shall be self-propelled and capable of being moved and kept under control by one (1) person traveling on foot. A special license may be granted to a handicapped person to operate a sidewalk cart propelled by electric motor, provided that the applicant shall meet all other conditions for a license.
(5) Location restrictions:
a. Sidewalk cart food vendors may operate only within the area bounded by the following: Commencing at the intersection of Third Avenue North and the Mississippi River, thence southeasterly along the Mississippi River to Interstate 35 West, thence southerly along Interstate 35 West to Interstate 94, thence westerly and northerly along Interstate 94 to Glenwood Avenue, thence easterly to Tenth Street, thence northerly to Third Avenue North, thence northeasterly to the point of beginning or the sidewalk abutting the south side of Vineland Place between Lyndale Avenue South and Bryant Avenue South.
b. A sidewalk cart food vendor licensed under this section may operate on privately or publicly owned property, within the boundaries described in subparagraph (1) above, with the express written consent of the property owner, and the approval of the director of public works.
(6) A sidewalk cart food vendor license shall not be transferable from person to person or from place to place without approval of the director of licenses and consumer services.
(7) Every licensee shall maintain a permanent location within the City of Minneapolis for the storage and preparation of food and beverages carried by the licensee’s sidewalk carts, and for the cleaning and servicing of those carts. Such permanent location shall comply in all respects with the requirements of the Minneapolis Food and Beverage Ordinances, and shall be separately licensed as a food distributor. Each sidewalk cart shall return to the permanent location at least once daily for cleaning and servicing.
(8) Each sidewalk cart shall meet National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) standards for food storage, preparation and dispensing. Toilet facilities shall be required at the permanent location but not on each cart.
(9) Each cart shall carry adequate hand-washing facilities for the employees of the licensee. A waste retention tank with fifteen (15) percent larger capacity than water supply tank shall be provided.
(10) All waste liquids, garbage, litter and refuse shall be kept in leakproof, nonabsorbent containers which shall be kept covered with tight-fitting lids and properly disposed of at the permanent location. No waste liquids, garbage, litter or refuse shall be dumped or drained into sidewalks, streets, gutters, drains, trash receptacles or any other place except at the permanent location. When leaving the sales area the licensee or his employees shall pick up all litter resulting from his business and shall deposit such litter in an approved container located on his cart.
(11) The manager of environmental health shall publish, and may from time to time amend, a list of approved food and beverage items which may be sold by sidewalk cart food vendors. No items of any kind, other than approved food and beverage items, shall be sold or dispensed from sidewalk carts.
(12) There shall be issued to each licensee a suitable decal for each licensed pushcart. Every pushcart licensed under this chapter shall at all times have the decal permanently and prominently fastened on the pushcart.
(13) Affixed permanently and prominently to each pushcart shall be a sign no smaller than twelve (12) inches by twelve (12) inches displaying the name, address and telephone number of the pushcart owner.
(14) Each licensee shall provide proof of liability insurance in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00) for individuals, three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000.00) for any single incident and ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) for property damage. A certificate of insurance shall be delivered to the director of licenses and consumer services prior to issuance of a license. The city shall be named an additional insured.
(15) No sidewalk cart operator shall use lights or noisemakers, such as bells, horns or whistles, to attract customers. A sidewalk cart operator may use battery-operated lights with protective shielding for the purpose of illuminating food and utensils.
(16) No sidewalk cart shall operate before 7:00 a.m. or after 11:00 p.m. on any day.
(17) No sidewalk cart shall operate, park, stand or stop in any street or alley except to cross at designated street crossings.
(18) The city council shall establish a reasonable fee, not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) per year, to be charged to each sidewalk cart food vendor not located on a specially assessed mall, to defray the cost of cleanup and maintenance and other policing in connection with the operation of the food cart.
(19) Any sidewalk cart operator who shall fail to operate at any licensed location for thirty (30) consecutive days between May first and October first shall forfeit that location. The department of licenses and consumer services shall notify all licensees of the vacation of said location and shall set a date for a lottery, if necessary, to choose among multiple applicants.
(20) Notwithstanding other provisions of this section, a licensed sidewalk cart may operate at an indoor location other than its normal sidewalk location, with the approval of the environmental health division and the consent of the property owner, during the following times:
a. Between October first and April thirtieth.
b. Between May first and October first only during periods of inclement weather.
All other conditions and restrictions of this section shall continue to apply to a sidewalk cart operated at an indoor location under this subsection. (99-Or-119, § 1, 10-29-99; 2000-Or-079, § 3, 8-11-00; 2005-Or-111, § 5, 11-18-05)
I am looking to start a vending cart operation in Minneapolis. The name of my stand will be Jambalaya Jack’s Soul Food Shack™. Does anyone know why a street vendor can’t be out past 11pm and is there any way around that?
Some other food for thought concerning street vending and farmers markets.
Mill City Farmers Market allows the Chef Shack per their rules.
However the Mpls Farmers Market (NOT the Farmers MArket Annex to the east) which is run by the Central Mn Veg Growers Association does not allow street vendors as farmers market members. The rationale for this is immediately consumable food (ICF) is reserved for our grower/producer members. There has been CMVGA approval for 2-3 members we have that offer their own products as ICF. While street vendors often use local ingredients allowing them to proliferate around farmers markets or as members may not always be in the best interests of the market. Farmers markets are supposed to be a venue for farmers and producers not restaurants that are mobile or not to conduct their business.
I support more access for street vendors within Mpls and the greater metro and think its long overdue. I also support the idea of limiting access of them at farmers markets. In LA some companies like Chipolte and other larger enterprises are getting involved in street vending. You can see how farmers markets could be undermined by commercial interests which is not the intent of most farmers markets.
I’m coming to Minneapolis for the UMN’s summer institute in public health and being a student and from a ‘developing’ country , i have been looking around for cheap food options(The scholarship doesn’t cover food!!) The article makes me worry more ! Esp for someone coming from India where abundant street food add to spice in life, its rather a disappointing discovery-this lack of a street food culture!
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