Editor's note: Please welcome Siobhan Wallace, one half of the blog Blondie and Brownie (you may know the other half, Alexandra Penfold, from her American Classics series on Sweets). The team are also authors of the new book, New York à la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple's Best Food Trucks, and they'll periodically share stories about NYC's street vendors: how they got here, what they do, and how they make ends meet while keeping us happy and fed on the cheap. Take it away, Siobhan!
The unassuming Financial District block of Front Street between Wall Street and Maiden Lane doesn't hold much appeal for tourists roaming the area. But local office workers know that the Veronica's Kitchen cart, right smack in the middle, not only serves up some of the most traditional Trinidadian cuisine found in New York, it's also run by a woman who will treat you with the loving warmth typically reserved for grandchildren.
Veronica Julien's life had taken many turns before she considered opening her own food cart. One of twelve children born in a small village outside Port of Spain, Trinidad, Veronica enjoyed an idyllic Caribbean childhood where playing on your own land and growing your own food was considered a normal thing. But, like many West Indians, she immigrated to New York in 1983 with the hopes of better job opportunities. She landed her first job with the former fast food chain Nedick's, then towards the end of its glory days.
Over the next 20 years, she went on to establish a career with the New York City Buildings Department as a microfilm consultant, until the post-9/11 recession lay-offs swept through every branch of the city's government, eliminating her position. "I thought, 'Oh God, I'm finished. How am I going to pay my mortgage?'" Not to mention the tuition bills faced from her daughter in college. Out of that necessity did her street food vision take shape, a cart where she could serve the food she grew up with.
These days, by the time the cart opens for lunch, Veronica's already been working for hours. She's typically up around 3 a.m. to put the finishing touches on the day's preparations before heading out to Front Street. But this is nothing compared to the obstacles she faced in 2004. Every street vendor knows that opening a street food cart is about much more than procuring a loan, building your cart, and dishing out meals. Location, as always, is key, and Veronica simply wasn't sure where to go. She wandered the streets of Manhattan considering locations, but then, "I'm walking the streets praying, and the Lord told me to come here," to a block of skyscrapers and glass windows.
It was a good choice, though hardly an easy one. "The other street vendors didn't want me here," she recalls. Complaints to the Board of Health and the NYPD were used in the attempts to get her moved off the street, which only forced Veronica to be extra diligent in following the letter of the law.
Once the other street vendors realized she was staying put, it was the offices' turn to begin harassing her. Her original spot had been farther towards Wall Street, but workers on the other side of dimmed windows complained the smell of food was bothering them. The only other available spot was closer to the middle, in front of a public plaza, and one of the only areas on the block that catches the sun's rays as it passes between the skyscrapers.
With the other vendors and office workers appeased, seemingly unflappable Veronica became concerned about garnering more business. The first few months were crucial for her survival, and she barely made it. Even nine years later, she gets jubilant when she reminisces about the first day she made over $100 nearly three months after opening.
Shortly before business picked up, she gave herself one more month to make it work. Slowly, office workers began realizing the cart served up a quick lunch unlike the halal carts, pizza joints, or buffet salads nearby. Word spread about the daily menu of tender oxtail and spicy jerk chicken, along with the rotating specials that range from steamed red snapper and kingfish to fry bake with cod in lieu of the expensive, hard-to-find shark to the popular barbecue beef ribs. In addition to the heaping platters, almost anything on the menu can be made into a Trini roti, complete with sweet pumpkin mash and potato stew. She hasn't changed the menu much since opening; daily lines that stretch halfway down the block show there's no need to.
Despite the lines, long hours, and—when she has a summer spot on Governor's Island—the never-ending work week, Veronica still gets a kick out of feeding people every day. But when the food runs out, it's her "me time," as her staff cleans the cart to prepare for another day's work.
125 Front Street, New York NY 10005 (map)