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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Red Hook'd: The Interview

We recently sat down with Cesar Fuentes, Executive Director of the Red Hook Food Vendors Committee to discuss the upcoming Red Hook Soccer Fields Food season. A few points worth noting:
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents will look very different: out with the tents, in with the city-mandated mobile food vending trucks.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents will taste the same: as of our interview, each of last year's vendors is planning on returning.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents might expand their days and months of operation: the new permits are valid year-round.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents need your support more than ever: the new permits, fees and operating costs have more-than-quadrupled their expenses.
  • The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Tents are still not open: we're hoping for mid-June, and we'll let you know ASAP.
Taco interest piqued? Read on!

Porkchop Express: First things first: what is the latest vendor movement? Is everyone returning? And can we expect anyone new?
Cesar Fuentes: So far, everyone – including the Rojas – has expressed a willingness to continue. However, I cannot guarantee each vendor will be selling this season. It's become more a matter of being able to afford a mobile vending unit, and maintaining profitability despite this season's added costs. I am also taking applications for more South American food vendors; you'll be the first to know.

PE: What are the permit details? And how have costs increased?
CF: Our permit is secured for 6 full years. However, there are tons of regulations and provisions to observe. We can still lose our permit at any point for any reason Parks feels our operation is non-compliant. As for costs, the permit fee is currently the same as last year's ($10,500). Our RfP request negotiated the same rate, with a 5% increase each year of operation. Unfortunately, new (additional) permit requirements will increase the committee's operating figure by as much as $30,000 from last year. And this does not even include the $35,000 -$40,000 average cost per food vending truck per vendor.

PE: What is the best thing to come out of last year's struggles?
CF: Last year showed resiliency on the part of the vendors. It also brought to light the appreciation our patrons and the community have for our affair, fighting and advocating on our behalf. It has improved the quality of our business by making things legal and in compliance, all without fear of further persecution. And the best thing, of course, is that we won a 6 year permit that will allow us to continue our tradition for the near future.

PE: And the worst?
CF: Probably the fact that our victory was bittersweet. The physical, unique aesthetic - weather beaten tarps, an old world food bazaar and unique 'mercado' feel - couldn't be kept despite our appeals for its preservation. And the operating costs for each vendor to continue selling in the park may be prohibitively high for some.

PE: In terms of your own efforts, what are you most content with?
CF: I am content with choosing the right path of action: becoming a public voice and fierce advocate for the vendors, as opposed to standing still and watching our affair become another New York casualty of change. It certainly made a difference. Our friends and supporters heard this voice and amplified it immeasurably... and the rest is history.

PE: In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
CF: Unfortunately, this advocacy also brought a lot of headaches, personal challenges and opposition both within and outside of our group. The press took a generally supportive role, but some articles were counter-productive or just plain misleading and ill-informed [except The 'Chop, which is the greatest news source ever in the history of porking. –ed. note]. Some say 'the end justifies the means,' and I would agree in this case. Yet given a second chance, I would be more careful about what and to whom I spoke - just to avoid the headaches.

PE: How much do you think race, language and immigration played into the city's crackdown?
CF: This is certainly a very touchy subject, and I have heard compelling arguments that these were some of the reasons behind the city's crackdown. I also believe the vendor's increased fame and notoriety accelerated this process, along with general changes to the area. It might also simply have been 'our time' to face compliance. I can't help but think that it was a collection of all these factors, and that one word sums it all up: gentrification.

PE: Speaking of which, the demographic has changed dramatically in under a year. There are way more non-Latino people visiting. How has gentrification of the ballfields themselves changed the Red Hook experience? And how have the vendors reacted?
CF: The demographics of our affair has certainly (and dramatically) changed. But change has been good. Actually, great. And here is why. For the longest time, the vendors thought they were simply a side attraction to the soccer games. Remember, for most of our 34 year tradition, it was about soccer and (mostly) Latino fans of the game coming to the park. Although changes began slowly in the 1990's, it was still a predominantly Latino clientèle. It wasn't truly until the 2000's that Non-Latinos began to 'discover' this hidden culinary treasure in a once neglected and forgotten corner of Brooklyn. Since many of our patrons now pay less mind to soccer than to Huaraches, the vendors have become the main attraction. When Red Hook was rediscovered, so were the food vendors. Still, vendors' reactions were mixed: some adapted quickly, others more gradually. Some were reserved and others were very outspoken. In all, the majority has come to accept and embrace the change of demographics. This is why despite soccer tournament attendance being at at an all-time low (which reflects fewer Latino customers), the vendors went ahead and invested their time, passion and resources to continue at Red Hook. They could have easily relocated to other fields in the city with a stronger Latino presence, but didn't – even if they felt anger or initial resentment towards the change. And in a very human way, the vendors have adapted to change in the way they operate and do business, welcoming new crowds without sacrificing their authenticity.

PE: A reader asked us about Lingonberry Horchata; how do you think Ikea will affect the ballfields? And has [nearby] Fairway already changed things?
CF: We will try to be good neighbors. We hope our crowds and the occasional double-parked vehicle won't affect flow of traffic on weekends. And while I don't expect IKEA or Fairway to affect our operation, the Baseball field food vendors (operating on Sundays) were removed from selling in Field #9 (right across from IKEA) for this season.

PE: For those who can't wait to get started eating, which of the vendors have permanent restaurants or sell their food elsewhere?
CF: Perez Mexican (Tacos) & Carcamo Honduran (Baleadas) still have their restaurants in Park Slope, Brooklyn - I believe you already have their addresses at The Porkchop Express. Martinez Mexican (Huaraches), Vaquero Mexican (elotes, fruits) and Soler Dominican\Salvadoran (Pupusas) also set-up satellite stands at Brownstoner's Brooklyn Flea Market, effective Memorial Day weekend.

PE: When you do finally open, what are the hours (and days) of operation this year? Will you serve food on Mondays and holidays?
CF: The best news of all is that OUR PERMIT IS YEAR ROUND! However, we probably don't expect to stay open 7 days or weather 12-inch snowfalls. Most likely we will remain open on seasonal weekends, long holiday weekends (including Mondays) and some weekdays. It's still in the works - we need to concentrate on opening, first! We're hoping for mid-June, but The Porkchop Express will be the first to know.

PE: So if you could, break rank and give us your top 3 NON-Red Hook tacos in the city.
CF: Of course. In descending order:
3) Any Taco truck along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens (along the #7 line, specifically between Roosevelt Avenue and Shea Stadium. There are several to choose from). [I agree. -ed. note]
2) The Taco truck on 96th street and Broadway (Super Taco) in Manhattan.
1) And finally, my favorite Mexican restaurant: El Coyote in Queens on Hillside Avenue and 180th Street. It's a hole-in-the-wall type of place, very small but cozy. Just about every thing is great, and in my opinion they have the best Cecina and Al Pastor tacos outside of Red Hook's own Perez Mexican.

Sorry, no tips about Brooklyn tacos - for obvious reasons. The best Mexican Tacos are in Red Hook Park!

PE: Is there anything else you want to share with the people?
CF: On behalf of the Red Hook Food Vendors, thanks to all of you for your love, care and support for our affair. You gave us the strength we needed to fight an uphill battle that is almost conquered. We are deeply grateful. And most importantly, remember that our victory is something for everyone to share. Over the next 6 years, our vendors will dedicate their authentic delicious Latin foods to each and every one of you.



Blogger Elaine Snutteplutten said...

I didn't actually see the addresses for the taco place and the Honduran place when I clicked on the links. Did I miss it?

If not, could someone repost?


10:43 AM  
Anonymous Angry M.F. Fisher, Food Writer said...

Wow, talking ** to ** dusky skinned ethnic people, who knew such a thing was possible in this day & age? Props, & Mr. Fuentes doesn't even have his own p.r. firm! Those of you who can't understand sarcasm are obviously not from the city like...

... let's call it way the fuck out: Ikea. While I support Mr. Fuentes efforts if he felt they are worthwhile, let's also rewind the tape a little:

PE: A reader asked us about Lingonberry Horchata; how do you think Ikea will affect the ballfields? And has [nearby] Fairway already changed things?

CF: We will try to be good neighbors. We hope our crowds and the occasional double-parked vehicle won't affect flow of traffic on weekends. And while I don't expect IKEA or Fairway to affect our operation, the Baseball field food vendors (operating on Sundays) were removed from selling in Field #9 (right across from IKEA) for this season.


For "this season"? I'm not challenging the veracity of this statement but I am very goddamn curious about ** why ** ?!

Mr. Fuentes can't say the truth everyone with even the slightest insight into the city KNEW from the start: they vendors mean ** nothing ** to the city. Oh, the city will take their $$$ for now, sure, but just. ya'll. wait.

If Pork Chop Express readers don't want that tp happen then the time is NOW, even if it's a lot harder to care about trucks than tents-- the latter of which will go very nicely with all of the garbage trucks nearby the city somehow doesn't care about. Maybe because all the folks who live nearby are black or "Spanish"? Nah!

Let's see if traffic & environmental enforcement in Red Hook approaches the diligence that has been applied against the vendors in the last few years. It still seems quite "funny" (hey, before the yuppiefucks thought it would bring down their "property values," BK was known as a VERY funny place) how our great government became so concerned about local health only after whitey, blue and yellow moved in.

Red Hook Day--


It's amazing we survived, despite the "danger" those food tents posed to all. Now, however, Mr. Fuentes is forced to be a "good neighbor" to... Ikea, and however many thousands of cars, trucks, mini-vans, SUVs etc they will bring?

What's wrong with this picture?

Angry M.F. Fisher
Food Writer
Who Walk In Brooklyn

1:38 PM  
Blogger Geoff said...

All that comes to mind is something I hear at work all day long:

No mames, huey.

2:03 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

no mames - no doubt

Perez (Mexican) restaurant:
La Asuncion
3914 Fort Hamilton Pkwy, Brooklyn
(718) 437-0864

Carcamo (Honduran) restaurant:
Honduras Maya
587 5th Ave, Brooklyn
(718) 965-8028

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

Thanks for posting this great interview. It wil be interesting what this will develop into in the next year. Who knows where the next REAL food under-the-radar area will be?

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Angry M.F. Fisher said...

Jeff-- it's already happening but there's a catch 22 in typing about it. Mr. Fuentes and all deserve whatever they can get-- I had been rocking Red Hook since '94... a relatively late arrival, I know.

Q: has anyone, ever, talked about hos the (mostly) Latinos re-claimed the abandoned field on the OTHER side of Bay St? There weren't games there but parents would lift their kids over the locked fence so they could have a spot to play.

I'd still also like one in even ten articles on the food vendors to talk about the garbage transfer facility...

... A BLOCK AWAY (or two, if we are being generous).

Mr. Fuentes & co. put in the work over the years so I don't blame them at all for trying this & hey, I hope it's even successful.

Meanwhile, the action continues, not at the same scale or with the same precise regional mix but, thankfully, the folks ARE at least a step or two ahead of the Po-Po, whatever uniform they might wear.

** Whole roasted pig slowly turning on a spit? every Saturday ** Absolutely!! I just can't say where publicly or else it might ruin it for everyone.

Peace to the Hogs,

Angry M.F. Fisher
Food Writer
Who Walk In Brooklyn

p/s: some of the sopes makers along the Columbia St baseball fields were faves of mine so even if Mr. Fuentes keeps it going, it's, at best, a partial victory.

8:26 PM  

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