Monday, September 28, 2009

Food TV on the Road: A Conversation with Daniel Delaney of VendrTV

Here’s a bonus post from my New York vacation earlier this month. While I was in the Big Apple, I got together with Daniel Delaney, host and executive producer of a relatively new Web-based show about street food called VendrTV.

Delaney and his crew were in San Francisco earlier this summer taping episodes, but I didn’t catch them before they wrapped up their episodes (which include visits to places like
Blue Bottle’s original alley shop, Spencer on the Go, and Let’s Be Frank). I checked out their Webcasts and was impressed by the quality of the production. I wanted to find out more.

Since I was heading to New York, where Delaney is based, we arranged to get together and check out a street vendor. Delaney suggested one of the hallmark of street foods in Manhattan, the Halal chicken and gyro cart on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue just north of Radio City Music Hall. Halal goes into full swing in the evening, when hungry diners leaving work stand in line for the famous chicken and lamb rice dishes or gyros. But we got together in the early afternoon on a weekday. (The Halal Guys are so famous that they’ve spawned several copycats around town, even imitating their signature yellow shirts. In fact, I was late for our meeting because I went to the wrong Halal cart.)

After we grabbed our orders of chicken and lamb with yogurt and hot sauce, we sat down on some sidewalk seating and talked about the growing popularity of street food and about VendrTV.

The following are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Single Guy: So tell me how VendrTV got started?

Daniel Delaney:
Essentially when I was in school — I have a design degree — I studied street food, and I studied it from a design perspective. And when I was finishing school, I was looking at a few different ideas … then I kind of realized that I’ve always had a desire to either be or support entrepreneurs. As a child I was walking dogs at the age of 14 with business cards and contracts.

… So I love entrepreneurs and I love food and I’m very proficient in technology and I had this multimedia background, so this just made a lot of sense to me. It was a way to do something that I loved, support people who work their asses off, and create a product that ultimately I was proud of and now people are starting to enjoy.

SG: Most people right out of school who want to do their own shows usually would just pick up a camcorder and upload their videos on YouTube. Your Web site and videos really look professionally done. Do you have backers who are funding all this?

DD: No backers. I have the good fortune of going to a university with other wildly talented people. So when I did decide to start the show I called some people I knew very well and explained what I wanted to do and sort of got the ball rolling.

Now, I won’t say it was easy. The initial four months of pre-planning before we got the show off the ground was very difficult. I learned a lot about what it takes to create a group mentality and create consensus. I made a lot of mistakes starting the show and I learned a lot. … But no, there were no backers. It was just the good fortune of friends and the desire to create something new and exciting.

SG: So what are your programming goals? You want to do an episode once a week?

We put a new episode up every Wednesday, and right now we’re focusing on probably this next year on covering the United States and then most likely thereafter we’ll start to travel internationally with the show. We have a lot more to cover in the States. …

Already in the seven months that we’ve been out we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve done Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, (Washington) D.C., Connecticut, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara. So a lot of cities.

SG: Usually when you travel to another city to film episodes, how long do you stay in one city?

We shoot really aggressively to the point where some days we might do five shoots in one day. For example we went out to the West Coast. We started in Seattle, and we rented this Ford Mustang convertible and we toured all along the West Coast and in three weeks we filmed 35 episodes of the show in seven cities. My crew does not like me for that.

SG: How many people do you travel with? Is it like traveling with your buddies on a road trip?

DD: Right now it’s myself, Andy (Buckmaster) the cameraman, and it was Florian (Dirringer) who did the sound for the show. Moving forward we’re going to be iterating once again and go to a two-camera shoot. We can get the right wireless microphone technology so we can do the show without a sound person and while I’m sad to not have a third person on the trip, it might make things more efficient for us and also make the cost of travel a little less.

As we chat, we dig into the Halal food. The hot sauce really sneaks up on you, but in a good way. I got the combination rice dish of chicken and lamb, and really enjoyed the mix of meat with rice and shredded lettuce covered with yogurt and hot sauce. It was a big plate of food, so I can see why the Halal guys are so popular because it’s a real value meal.

SG: Do you have any problems getting people to appear on your show?

DD: Never. I think in the whole time we had two carts we couldn’t get on the show. One of them was just unresponsive and the second just couldn’t allow for cameras in their kitchen because it was too tight so we couldn’t do them. But the vendors love it. It’s free publicity for them. It shows them in a light that most of them never get. Even when we looked at the Kogi barbeque truck in LA, they got tons of publicity from CNN, NBC, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. But it was never about them, or their food, or their family. It was the fact that they used Twitter, and it was a passing thought. So no, the vendor loves this. … It’s almost like a reward. These guys have been here over 25-30 years [pointing to the Halal truck], and the piece we did on them was probably the first time they were truly truly profiled in detail by a program.

SG: How do you decide which street vendor to feature?

We research every vendor ahead of time. In a city that’s accessible like New York or Philadelphia or Boston, I’ll drive up and try the food ahead of time. In places like the West Coast, we were fortunate enough to have really great people working with us. In Seattle we had a few food writers help us locate the proper parts to visit. Same thing in Portland, there’s a Web site called, which is great. … But it’s at this point now where we’ve put up all these episodes that I’m actually getting a little bombarded with emails now because people watch it so much we get a lot of suggestions all the time from food cart vendors and also from viewers of the show.

SG: Do you ever feature so-called illegal vendors who don’t have permits?

Yeah, we filmed an episode on the roving vendors in the Mission (District in San Francisco), where we featured the Sexy Soup Lady and the Crème Brulee Guy and Magic Curry Kart … We did a bunch of illegal vendors in Los Angeles and we did taco crawls. … A lot of vendors who are illegal are illegal not because they’re so intent on being malicious, but the city makes it very difficult for a lot of people to sell food.

I think it’s very disappointing too. To me, I really can’t think of something that really transcends time and culture than the idea of selling food on the street. I mean, we can trace it back to the beginning of our civilization and the culture of bazaars where they’re selling food in large outdoor markets. It’s the same thing, it’s just changed shape. And unfortunately bureaucracy makes it difficult for people to get the ground.

SG: Do you see any particular trend with street food right now?

DD: Yeah, what it is are MBAs who got laid off and are starting street carts. They have the tech savvy to understand how to use social media tools like Twitter and Facebook and they have some reserve money to build beautiful carts with wonderful writing and that’s most certainly a trend.

SG: What do you think of these fancy new vendors compared to the taco trucks, for example?

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, part of me is reserved about it because it feels a little like these people who come from little more affluence are taking up space dominated by primarily immigrant cultures. So there’s something that’s difficult and not so pleasant about that.

On the other hand, this is America. It’s a free market. We operate in a free market society, and I don’t think competition is ever a bad thing. Honestly, I’ve tasted some of the street food 2.0 carts, if you will, in different cities. Sometimes the product is awesome, and if the product is awesome, that’s great. Sometimes the product is rancid. … I think a lot of stink is made about it, but at the end of the day, they are restaurants. Mobile vendors are restaurants, and if your product is good and you’re in a good location and you build a community, it doesn’t matter if you’re on Twitter or Facebook. The restaurant industry is not built on one-trick ponies; it’s built on repeat customers.

SG: Earlier you said you loved street food. Was that something you grew up with, eating a lot of street food?

No, the exact opposite. As a child growing up I jokingly say I was abused. I only really got to eat Italian food. My father is Irish, so when you’re Irish in America you eat Italian food because you can’t eat potatoes all day. So there’s a lot of chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs and things like that. Then I went to college. I was dating this girl at the time and she was like, “let’s go get sushi.” And I was kind of shaking in my boots because I’d never had anything like that. Sushi? Raw fish? Disgusting. But we went out and I didn’t want to go, “oh, I’m not going to have that.” So we went out and got sushi and I was so nervous, and I tried it and it was fantastic.

And then I had tabouli and all these other delicious things, and I started to realize that there’s so much out there that I haven’t had and a little switch went off in my head and instead of being the timid person that I might have been growing up with food, or if not timid then not exposed, then a switch went off and I decided I needed to try everything that I could try.

SG: But how did that translate into street food?

Well, I was a college student, so I was broke. And I’m still broke. And often you can get great food for not that much money from street vendors. … One of my larger interests came from the design perspective. I kind of wanted to open a restaurant, but that was too big. Why don’t I open a food cart? That seems more attainable, an easier goal to shoot for. And in doing this project (for school) I learned more about street food, and started to develop a kinship toward them.

The thing I like most about them is how transparent they are. I get a little annoyed when I hear people say: “I’m not going to eat street food because it’s dirty.” In my mind, street food is one of the cleanest. The difference is in a restaurant you don’t know what they put in the food. But there’s such a level of transparency in street vendors. In my mind, when you walk up to the cart, you’re going to see if it’s dirty. Then it’s up to you if you want to take that risk.

Generally the guy who’s making the food is probably the proprietor, the owner of the cart, and if he makes a bad product for you, if he makes you sick, you’re not going to come back to his cart and that’s his meal ticket, and that’s his bread and butter, or, in this case, halal and white sauce.

SG: Is this something you want to do for awhile, or do you have any other goals? When I saw your videos, I have to say I thought you’re probably an actor-wannabe who fell into hosting a food show.

DD: I used to like theater (in school). I was at one point really excited about theater. But I never really wanted to be an actor, ever. So what’s going to happen now, we have two routes we’re going to go now. Did I tell you about our book deal? [Delaney explains he has a deal to publish a picture book with recipes of the best street food in America.] … The trajectory as we see it, we’re going to be doing the show in America for about a year. Then at that point the book will be coming out, and we’ll do a book tour. And then after that we’re going to end VendrTV as you know it and start a new show, “VendrTV: World Tour.” And that’s going to be the international version of the show. … We’re going to be doing that for a year and a half, and working on a second book about world street food and that’s where we see the trajectory going.

SG: In all your episodes there’s always an extended shot of you eating the food. You really don’t seem to mind being filmed eating. Is that for real or are you just doing that for the camera?

DD: For me food is always about comfort. It’s about no pretension, getting down and enjoying yourself. I don’t go to Per Se (Thomas Keller’s restaurant in Manhattan). I don’t like those places. I like street food. I like eating with my hands, that’s what I like. And I think part of what we have to do is tell stories. … At the same time, it’s my goal to make myself as relatable to my audience as possible. It’s my goal to make them feel like, oh yeah, that’s Dan. It’s not some person behind glass.

SG: So you’re trying to make it as real as possible.

Yeah, and it’s also funny. It adds some humor. In Boston we did the Speed Dog episode, and Andy was editing that episode and he basically put the camera down and filmed me eat the whole fucking hot dog. And then put it in fast motion and you like see me chewing away at this disgustingly large hot dog. It’s funny. We played it the other day at some conference and everyone’s laughing at that point because it’s this gargantuan disgusting thing. And I’m sure there are people who see that and say it’s disgusting, you shouldn’t eat like that. You should take a bite and then take a bite off camera. But you know what? I’m not every other show. We’re our show and we like that. And it’s not only that I take the bite, but very literally my cameraman as soon as I take the bite he goes in for a really tight shot. It’s about the grit. Street food is gritty. You’re eating off the street. There’s something nice, I think, about how unpolished like stuffing your face is. So to me the two are harmonious.

After our interview, Delaney walked a few yards down the block to check out another street food vendor, this one was a dessert van called Street Sweets. The street food research apparently never stops.

Special thanks to Daniel Delaney for taking the time to chat with me and for introducing me to the Halal guys. They’re definitely worth checking out if you visit Manhattan. You can see more of Delaney on his Webcasts by visiting
VendrTV’s Web site.


Cookie said...

Great interview! I just watched a few of his webcasts and I like him! The show is a lot lke Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives minus Guy Fieri's annoying attitude!

Daniel Delaney said...

Hey! Dan here from VendrTV. Thanks again for the writeup. And Cookie, thanks. ;)