In anticipation of the 2011 season opening of the Red Hook Food Vendors this weekend (April 30th), Untapped chatted with founding partner and executive director of the group, Cesar Fuentes. From Untapped, Shawn Pelsinger (lawyer and founder of social media application imup4) and I asked about politics, gentrification, social media and of course, food .
Untapped: A lot of people are anticipating this opening for the Red Hook Food Vendors. There’s even a question on Quora about it!
Cesar: A lot’s happened behind the scenes before we can actually open up. We try to keep the magic of our seasonal opening…many see the opening as kind of an official start of the summer.
Untapped: I saw you guys got a six year extension a few years back to work the [Red Hook] ball fields, are you guys happy with the outcome?
Cesar: The Red Hook ballfields are the ancestral home of the Red Hook Food Vendors. This is part of their life and the generations of their children that have worked there. Their stories are deeply rooted in this little piece of parkland. Even before we got the extension, the parks were forced to regulate the way they permit concessionaires. We were able to get the permit but at the same time, we were not able to save the traditional, organic artisanal way–the setup that helped us in many ways. That was lost and part of the spirits were lost in that transition. A new project [we're working on], The New Marketplace, is an attempt to present something that would be close to the original setup of the vendors.
Untapped: Any plusses to the transition?
Cesar: We’ve been blessed with popularity, making our project even more appealing. We are now looking to find harmony between being in the parks and selling food. What we want to do with the ball fields [with the New Marketplace] is going to be absolutely amazing in terms of design and green technology. We want to bring something as green as we can and in harmony with environment. Why not provide something that’s cutting edge, brings more awareness, and give back to the community?
Untapped: How long until the next renewal of the permits?
Cesar: We’re two years away from the end of the six year extension.
Untapped: As a non-profit organization, what are you representing?
Cesar: We represent not just food vendors, but street vendors–artisans of their craft–vendors who actually bring generations and generations of family recipes, cuisines and home cooking and make it available for the public. It’s home food cooked with love.
Untapped: Have you seen a noticeable uptick in business since the food truck scene exploded a few years back? Have applications gone up? What’s the vetting process for applicants?
Cesar: The food vendors have been there since 1974. At first [the customers were] just Latinos and people interested in soccer. Our fame really exploded when we started having the big names…Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay…and then in 2006, the New York Times blew the cap and then we started getting international press. Every year 25-30 are serious about applying. The vendors committee decided to maintain the tradition [of the food vendors], so to that respect there were [only] three different applicants that were actually accepted. [You have to bring] something that’s unique, something that’s representative of a different country for our customers. We see ourselves as ambassadors of traditional, culinary foods from Latin America. What we’re looking for is anybody who is able to provide food that is high quality, homemade, has a unique recipe, and represents a different country or cultural way of cooking.
Untapped: Do you tweet your location?
Cesar: Every food vendor is encouraged to promote their own business in whichever way they see fitting. Some have their own website and tweet a lot. I’m in charge of tweets for the entire group at @RedHookFoodVend
Untapped: What was your personal motivation to create the organization?
Cesar: I’m the child of one of the vendors…”generation 1.5,”…those that came to this country very very young in their tweens, who acculturated into American society at a young age. I came to the Red Hook Food Vendors eleven years ago because the vendors were endangered with eviction from the ball fields. I myself have a background in sociology, so I’m very passionate about changing society and changing demographics. The group had been operating for a long time unorganized. The community and the local police department wanted to have some type of liability from the groups that operated in the park to maintain the grounds, cleaning, etc. It was curious that the advent of gentrification in Red Hook was exactly that moment that [the Red Hook Food Vendors] were pointed to by city officials and the community board. So thankfully I was able to successfully advocate on behalf of that group. I had two weeks to clean up the act of 20 years of noncompliance and I was able to organize the vendors and create a group. We became a non-profit five years ago with the purpose of advocating, protecting and creating more of a structure for the vendor group.
Untapped: Do you guys have internships? Want to hire me as your lawyer? I’ll (Shawn) take the case for free!
Cesar: Definitely. We’re a 501(c)6 non-profit. Through interns, we’ve been able to pursue the New Marketplace Project. Any professional pro-bono help will be welcome. Funding wise we don’t get much money but we can provide “food for fees!”
Untapped: This is fantastic, thanks for everything you’ve been doing and see you at the opening this weekend!
Cesar: Here’s a piece of news exclusive for Untapped. Solber Pupusas (formerly Soler Dominican), the husband and wife pupusa truck is one of five vendors accepted at Hot Bread Kitchen, which used to be the Harlem Marquetta. They were a finalist of the VENDY awards and it’s going to be a very interesting collaboration.
Soler Dominican pupusas (photo: newyork.seriouseats.com)