Editor's Note: We write about food events in New York all the time on Serious Eats, but what's it like to work behind the scenes as a volunteer? Siobhan Wallace is here with the inside story.
I'll admit it: the first time I volunteered for the Vendy Awards, I didn't want to. I would rather have bought a ticket to enjoy the event all afternoon. But in 2008 tickets sold out earlier than I thought, my only way in was to get put to work.
At the time, the Vendys needed all the help they could get—it was a relatively small operation with everyone able to fit into DUMBO's Tobacco Warehouse—and I was put on garbage duty. Fun. But somewhere in that long day of constantly cleaning up other peoples' trash, I found myself having a blast. And already planning on helping the following year—just not on garbage duty.
It's a safe bet that no one at the time suspected I would end up collecting stories and recipes from New York City's street food vendors, nor that I'd volunteer for the next four years and eventually wind up as a demo-giving perk for VIP tickets. But volunteering became one of the more rewarding aspects of my food career in New York—and you get seriously fed.
The day itself is often exhausting, like in 2009 when I ended up working from set-up in the early morning to break-down in the evening, or when I was manning a raffle table where we still didn't quite have all the kinks straightened out or a way for winners to redeem their prizes.
Few volunteers work the whole day; most are assigned shifts of half the day so they also have time to explore the event. I signed up for only one shift out of the two available, but when it came to quitting time, I felt compelled to stay. A logistical shortage meant that if I left, the remaining crew would have been short-staffed, so rather than abandon my new acquaintances I soldiered on with them for the rest of the afternoon. That's when I learned what it meant to feel bone-tired.
But I also went home feeling exhilarated. Compared to many other events, the Vendys are decidedly relaxed and unpretentious. Even though it's now a well-oiled machine, you can be partnered with a friend and still have the option to meet new people. Your designated task can range anywhere from directing guests from the subway and front door check-in to garbage/compost duty. And once you've proven your worth, you can assist the staff with suggestions.
"Every year presents new, interesting challenges," explains Volunteer Coordinator Joanne Ling. For instance, in my third year, Alexandra Penfold and I were at a bit of loss regarding what to do since every station appeared to be well-manned. Guests kept coming up to us asking how and where to vote, so we began explaining the process and simply reminding people to vote before the day's deadline. And voila, another aspect to the voting team was born.
Volunteers who prove their mettle can be put on one of the most treasured teams: helping the judges. This is the chance to meet the celebrities who decide New York City's newest street food king (or queen!). With all the food samples they have to eat—and trust us, it's on par with a 14-course tasting menu—the staff needs help making sure the next vendor is ready, the judges have adequate beverages, and plates are cleared before the next round.
Then there's meeting vendors—less common at glitzier events—and getting to know them in the nervous moments before guests pour in and the relaxed ones when the day's done. I've been touched by their emotions upon winning, knowing that their daily schedule involving 3 a.m. alarms and 10 p.m. bedtimes rarely includes the blatant appreciation of an award. Sometimes they cry, sometimes they blast their music and turn the area around their truck into a small rave (ahem, Korilla), but everyone is honored to be there.
If you're interested in volunteering at this year's Vendys on September 7th, email [email protected] post-haste. Let them know we sent you.
About the author: The non-Blondie half of Blondie & Brownie, Siobhan Wallace fits in writing and promoting her book New York à la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple's Best Food Trucks in between working towards her MA in Food Studies from NYU. You can follow her on Instagram at @SiobhanDubs.