Interview: Vendy Awards founder Sean Basinski

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Food Event Los Angeles

Sean Basinski's support for street food vendors now extends to Los Angeles.

The Vendy Awards have become a New York phenomenon since Street Vendor Project Director Sean Basinski founded the street food cook-off in 2005. Every year, the vendors’ rights advocacy group showcases the city’s top street vendors, and this year, on May 15, from 4 – 7 PM, they’re bringing the battle to MacArthur Park. Judges include Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA), Javier Cabral (Teenage Glutster), chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Animal) and chef Evan Kleiman (Angeli Caffe), but everybody who attends the Vendys are entitled to food from nominees like India Jones Chow Truck, Hot Dog Kings, Bigmista’s Barbecue, Nina’s Food, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Tacos el Galuzo. The majority of proceeds benefit CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles), UCLA Downtown Labor Center and Los Loncheros Association. Leading up to the event, Basinski discussed the Vendy Awards, and how the L.A. version differs from the New York original:

Josh Lurie: What is it that inspires you about street vendors?

Sean Basinski: Vendors are traditionally immigrants and outsiders and underdogs. I have always been inspired by how hard they work and struggle, asking for nothing more than the right to carry out a small business in public space.

JL: What was your motivation to bring the Vendy Awards to L.A.?

SB: In the past few years, the street food movement has gone national, and we wanted the Vendys to be a part of that. LA is a hugely important city in terms of street food culture and immigrants rights, so it was a natural place to grow. We also wanted to find ways to work with the vending organizations in LA.

JL: Are any other cities in contention for a Vendy Awards?

SB: We do want to continue to grow, but haven’t chosen where.

JL: What are some of the differences that you see between the cities’ street food scenes?

SB: The Mexican and Central American population of LA is prevalent in a way that has dominated the street food scene. In New York, street food is more diverse. At the same time, the exception for catering trucks (which makes it much easier to open a vending truck in LA than NY) has increased innovation among the “gourmet” or “branded” trucks here beyond what we have in New York.

JL: How will the L.A. Vendy Awards differ from the New York original?

SB: No real difference. This first year in LA will be a stripped-down version of our NY event, which has gotten very big, with various categories, t-shirt sales, silent auctions, etc. But the basic concept is the same. Everybody comes to eat and celebrate, and then at the end we announce the winner.

JL: What have the biggest challenges been in bringing the Vendy Awards to L.A.?

SB: The Vendys obviously don’t have the following here that we have built in NY, so it has been a challenge to spread the word, and it will take time for the event to grow. But the logistics seem much easier here in LA. I went to the street permit office, expecting to wait in line for hours, and I strolled right in and the staff was incredibly helpful.

JL: How did you decide on MacArthur Park for the venue?

SB: One of the host organizations, the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, has its office right on MacArthur Park and they have held events there. But MacArthur Park has powerful symbolism — it was LA’s first approved sidewalk vending zone in the late 1990’s. That experiment failed, but groups are trying to revive the idea of legalizing sidewalk vending in LA.

JL: How did you decide which vendors to feature at the L.A. Vendy Awards after receiving all of the public nominations?

SB: The finalists were chosen by who gets the most nominations — although we did give some extra points to vendors who we felt represented communities who are not as tapped into Twitter and the food blogs and therefore probably did not receive as many nominations.

JL: What percentage of the admission price will benefit CHIRLA, UCLA Downtown Labor Center and Los Loncheros Association?

SB: If the event sells out, which we predict, about 75% of the admission price will go to those three groups — CHIRLA, the Downtown Labor Center, and Los Loncheros.

JL: How did you decide on those recipients?

SB: Those are the groups we identified in the fall as working with vendors in LA, and they agreed to partner in pulling off the event.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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