On a dreary Friday morning, Kim Ima, the self-made baker known as the “The Treats Truck lady,” was trying to find a sweet spot for Sugar. At dawn, she had packed Sugar, her nickname for her natural-gas-fueled Treats Truck bakery, with trays of her signature Oatmeal Jammies, Pecan Butterscotch bars and egg-shaped Easter cookies; by 11:45 a.m., she was waiting to squeeze into her usual parking spot, just a few blocks from 30 Rockefeller Center.
Blocked by a couple of clunky vans, she pulled out her BlackBerry and fired off a quick blog post on her Treats Truck Twitter page: “Circling and circling, need help from the parking god!” Finally, after about 15 minutes, Ms. Ima nuzzled Sugar next to another mobile midtown food vendor, the Rickshaw Dumplings truck.
“Woo-hoo finally parked at 45th st. and 6th ave from 12-4pm, then moving to Flatiron,” she wrote in another Twitter post. “Check for rain updates!” She popped open an old-fashioned red-and-white-striped awning and, within minutes, about a half-dozen patrons, on lunch break from their office cubicles, formed a line in the light rain.
While cutting up brownie cubes for free samples, the petite Ms. Ima, wearing a retro-style red, white and blue uniform and red scarf over her dark brown hair, told The Observer that she maintains a Web site, a mailing list and phone hot line for her business. Her Twitter feed, @TheTreatsTruck, is just “another way to connect with people.”
Not only can her 685 followers check the Treats Truck’s every move to get their sugar fix, but Ms. Ima can also field requests from Upper East Side moms looking to reserve cupcakes for their toddlers or answer questions from Brooklyn bakers about her recipes.
“It’s still a small business and I like to connect with a lot of different people,” Ms. Ima said. “People like to come up and tell me, ‘Oh, you know, I follow you on Twitter,’ or, ‘My office follows you on Twitter.’ It’s an insidery thing that’s fun.”
But for the popular mobile restaurants that will rumble around Manhattan and Brooklyn streets this spring—adding a little high-end competition to the smoky, street-meat-slinging food carts parked at nearly every midtown corner during lunch hour—Twitter is becoming their go-to tech tool. Whether they’re searching for parking, having a little truck trouble or delivering the secret “password” (“Say ‘propinquity’ and get a free topping!”), popular food trucks—from the Flatiron’s Belgian waffler Wafels & Dinges to the Dessert Truck to Soho’s mobile Mexican carts courtesy of Calexico Carne Asada—are using the of-the-moment microblogging platform to keep their fanatic customers in the know. Here come the Twittering food trucks!
“IT’S AN EVENT, once they Twitter when they get to their spot,” said Angela Leporte, an administrative assistant, who bought a lemonade and pork dumplings from the Rickshaw Dumpling truck parked on St. Mark’s Place on a sunny evening last week.
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar has a static location on West 23rd Street. Co-founder Kenny Lao said that the company decided to go mobile in September, and within weeks, they signed up for a Twitter account, at @RickshawTruck.
“Dumplings, as our chef Anita [Lo] likes to say, actually started out as a street food,” said Mr. Lao. “So in this very obvious New Yorky way, we’re bringing it back to the street.”
The burgundy-colored truck has a regular schedule posted on Rickshaw’s Web site. On Mondays, it’s in downtown Brooklyn. On Tuesdays, 52nd and Lex. “People are like, ‘O.K., Tuesday is my dumpling day,’ and not being able to find the truck is super-scary for them,” Mr. Lao said. “Imagine if you wanted your edamame dumplings and you were so psyched and thinking about them all morning going through these shitty meetings, and then all of a sudden you get to the store and the store is not there? New York customers are very demanding and get very upset if you’re not there,” he said. “I think Twitter actually solves that problem in a lot of ways because it gives you an up-to-the-minute update. It allays the fear.”
Mr. Lao said Twitter is especially convenient when the truck’s workers are bullied off certain spots by other vendors in the fiercely competitive street-food scene. “A lot of Mr. Softies are really, really Mr. Meanies,” he explained. “And for no reason, because we’re not even selling sweet stuff; we’re selling dumplings! Like Halal guys, they’re selling chicken and rice, and they’re coming up and they’re not super-friendly. Legally, we have just as much of a right to park there as they do, and they don’t own the street. But they say, ‘Don’t park here, we’re going to slash your tires,’ and I say, ‘O.K., we’re not going to park here.’”
Zach Brooks, the blogger behind MidtownLunch.com, often reviews food trucks’ burritos and gyros, and has been paying attention to territorial food carts’ battle with “hipster trucks,” as Mr. Brooks described them. They aren’t so welcomed by the local vendors who have been serving on the same streets for generations. Twitter is “just the perfect vehicle”—ha!—“for these trucks,” Mr. Brooks said, while they’re trying to find a spot that won’t offend their neighbors, “until they settle into a rhythm.”
Mr. Brooks said Twitter is also a quick way to build the foodie community. Not only can his readers comment on his blog, but they can follow him on Twitter and get updates as he walks midtown streets, taking pictures of the latest food carts, discovering hidden treasures or new restaurants opening with specials. A recent tweet from @MidtownLunch: “got a burrito from the cart on Park & 53rd (report coming soon) followed by 3” of pizza, and free gelato (!) from Golosi.”
“They feel like they’re at lunch with me,” Mr. Brooks told The Observer.
“IT’S A GOOD WAY to create a dialogue with your people,” concurred Thomas DeGeest, founder of Wafels & Dinges, who was standing beside his Tweety Bird–yellow truck. He likes to point out that, for the record, Wafels & Dinges had the first Twittering food truck in New York. (First tweet from @waffletruck on May 26, 2008: “Memorial Day weekend – we’re taking off Saturday through Monday!!”) It also has a blog.
“I worked as a management consultant at IBM before becoming the waffle guy,” explained Mr. DeGeest, who often recommended social networking tools to his clients.
Twitter is his tool of convenience, he explained. During the first months of his business, he’d call his wife from the truck. “‘O.K., now we’re here, at Broadway and Prince Street,’ and she’d have to update the Web site. I drove her crazy,” Mr. DeGeest said. Now he just updates the truck’s location from his BlackBerry.
The Wafels & Dinges truck wafts a smell of toasted sugar and fresh coffee at its usual spot on 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue, but Mr. DeGeest and his employee (and a part-time actor), Joe Kurtz, broadcast waffle specials and free toppings on Twitter. Mr. Kurtz will sometimes ask people to do an activity, like impersonating a Muppet character or bringing him Easter candy, to get some extra strawberries on their soft and chewy Belgian waffle. Last week was Mr. DeGeest’s birthday, so everyone got a free topping—no password or silliness required. He told The Observer he plans on hooking up his next truck with another high-tech service, GPS tracking, so customers can follow it in real time. Hopefully, the truck will show up fast, since according to a recent @WaffleTruck Twitter update: “Wafels & Dinges is now being towed to the transmission shop … it’s getting a new engine/transmission this week. Stay put!”