Food trucks are up in Madison this year – Isthmus

Interest in opening a food truck in Madison has never been higher.

Meghan Blake-Horst, the city’s street vending coordinator, says her inbox is flooded with “countless” emails from both new entrepreneurs and established restaurateurs seeking information about opening a cart. To manage some of this traffic and open more opportunities to grab the cheapest foothold in the culinary world, the city has added another night of late-night vending — now available Wednesday to Saturday evenings — and increased the number of late-night vendors from three to five. They are now consolidated in the traffic-heavy Library Mall area, instead of being spread out across State Street.

Luis Dompablo, co-owner of Caracas Empanadas and Caracas Arepas food carts, celebrates the changes, saying they “give opportunity to a lot of people.” He brings both carts to the Library Mall on weekdays and to South Pinckney Street during the Saturday Dane County Farmers’ Market and says business is “great.” Like everyone, he’s had to hike his prices due to inflation, but has retained a core customer base he says will “find him anywhere.”

While there are fewer licensed vendors working the high-density zone from the state Capitol to Library Mall — 31 compared to 43 in 2019-2020, according to Blake-Horst — the total number of licensed food vendors in the city is spiking this year. 

In 2019 there were 74 licensed food cart/truck vendors, the same as last year. This year, the city has already issued 83 licenses just two months into the 2024-25 season. By next April, when the year ends, Blake-Horst estimates the number of licensed vendors will clear triple-digits.

This is due mostly to far more vendors operating outside of the downtown and State Street. There were fewer than 20 of these vendors outside of the central city before the pandemic; today, there are 43 with another 10 in the process of securing their licenses. These citywide vendors sometimes partner with bars or other brick-and-mortar establishments looking to add food vending. Blake-Horst says this practice is “growing” and she is working with the businesses to make sure they are using licensed vendors.

Despite the growing interest in food vending, there are external economic pressures that make operating a food truck challenging. Thanh Tram, the owner of China Cottage and a four-decade Madison food cart veteran, describes the economy with a thumbs down, saying it’s “no good.”

“Food’s expensive, supplies are expensive, everybody’s spending less,” he says.

Food carts still represent the cheapest option for an aspiring chef trying to break into the industry, according to Blake-Horst and vendors, but the work space is cramped and costs are still high. While licensing fees vary depending on location, a premium spot in the Mall/Concourse Vending Area (the Library Mall and Capitol Square) can run near $2,000 a year. And weather plays a role — 70% of area vendors close for the harsh winters, according to Blake-Horst.

“Food vending [in Madison] has always been a challenging, challenging experience,” she says.

New policies, including the State Street Late Night Vending Program, seek to increase opportunity for emerging entrepreneurs. The city received eight applications for the five spots. Ald. MGR Govindarajan lauds the new initiative for giving students more late-night options and increasing revenue for the cart owners, but says vendors will likely need to wait until students return to campus to see a significant economic benefit.

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