The humble food cart is a fixture on the streets of New York, and in recent years the offerings available have gone a long way beyond pretzels and the classic “dirty water” hot dogs. Now you can find food carts serving dosas, and arepas, and Bangladeshi-style marinated lamb over rice. People line up patiently on the sidewalks of Midtown to get their favorite “street meat,” and carts vie for bragging rights over who grills up the best halal chicken. Between food carts, which can set up on the sidewalk, and food trucks, there are now as many as 8,000 mobile food vendors in this city alone.
But while the culinary advances in New York’s street food scene have been tremendous, the carts themselves are still relatively old-school. Flashing LED light displays, now ubiquitous, are about the only concession to the 21st century. The vendors are mostly cooking with propane gas—which has been known to explode—and powering their rolling homes with dirty, noisy diesel generators.
That may be beginning to change. This week, a company called MOVE Systems introduced what its founders hope will be the food cart of the future: the MRV100. The sleek unit, designed with input from vendor focus groups, runs on compressed natural gas, with a solar panel providing supplementary power, and the ability to charge up off the electrical grid as well. The new cart is cleaner and quieter by several orders of magnitude than its traditional counterpart, with a restaurant-quality kitchen and far better refrigeration facilities than is typical.
Its developers also say that it is equipped—through a proprietary point-of-sale system—to take food carts into the future, or at least the present, by enabling credit-card payment, electronic inventory control, and perhaps, in the future, a consumer app for pre-ordering.
The deal to bring the carts to the streets was announced earlier this week, with support from city officials and members of the Street Vendor Project advocacy group. The MRV100s will be leased, free of cost, to selected vendors (the first 100 are going to disabled veterans, who have priority for street vendors’ licenses in the city already, and the next wave will go to a cross-section of those on a waiting list). So the upside here for participating vendors is pretty straightforward: free rent, versus a traditional food cart that can cost between $15,000 and $25,000.
MOVE will get its revenue by providing the CNG that powers the carts, in partnership with investor Clean Energy Fuels, and by taking a portion of the merchant fee from the point-of-sale system developed by partner First Data, also an investor. Advertising is another potential source of revenue.
The MRV100 will be rolled out slowly: 100 carts by summer’s end, and another 400 by this time next year. If the technology and concept take hold, and the business model proves viable, the potential for reducing emissions is significant. A report from advocacy group Energy Vision notes that New York has no standards for the type of generators used by mobile vendors, and that they emit levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide that are potentially dangerous for operators and customers alike—although operators, who often are in their carts for 10 hours or so a day, are most at risk.
The report calculates that replacing the 3,100 diesel-powered traditional food carts operating full-time on the city’s streets with CNG hybrid models like the MRV100 would reduce carbon monoxide emissions by as much as taking 139,500 cars off the road. Nitrogen oxide emissions would be cut by the equivalent of removing 576,600 cars. And if the carts eventually were to use renewable natural gas, a fuel derived from organic waste that is in development around the country, net emissions could effectively be reduced to zero.
MOVE’s CEO, James Meeks, says the response from vendors has been enthusiastic. He thinks that the city’s street-food purveyors are ready to embrace the new technology, and that adoption of the MRV100 will result in a significant improvement to the fabric of life in New York—and other places as well. “It’s a smart asset that works well with the city streets,” he says. “It’s tailor-made for New York, but I think it could work for any city.”