A row of classic Worksman hot dog carts on the factory floor.
The oldest bike manufacturer in the U.S., Worksman Cycles, also happens to be the home of two American food vending icons: the Good Humor ice cream tricycle and the New York City hot dog cart. What’s more, if you live in New York city, chances are that your last delivery pizza or egg roll traveled to your door in the front basket of a Worksman bike, and if, instead, you live in the Connecticut suburbs, you may well have enjoyed a cold Bud purchased from a Worksman-made drinks trolley during your evening Metro-North commute…
I recently visited Worksman with a class of students from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, as part of a studio that Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and I are teaching this spring called “The City of Mobile Services.” It’s a topic I’ve been researching (and muttering about putting together some sort of pamphlet about) since 2008, when the food truck trend was just getting going. I spent a day with a bookmobile in London, with the Grow Truck mobile tool-share service in New York City, and with Let’s Be Frank, a gourmet hot-dog stand that rolls around the westside of Los Angeles, and I became increasingly interested in the way these mobile services reconfigured the static physical, economic, and edible geography of the city.
A typical food cart in action in New York City, complete with pigeon.
Meanwhile, at both Foodprint NYC and Toronto, Sarah Rich and I found ourselves talking about food carts, as a fascinating case-study of the way economic and regulatory forces play out at the street level to shape an urban, mobile food delivery system.
Located in a former birthday candle factory in Ozone Park, Queens, Worksman Cycles’s bread-and-butter business is actually the heavy-duty front- or rear-loading trikes used by companies such as Boeing or Exxon to move parts back and forth along their vast production lines. In fact, one of Worksman’s industrial tricycles had a cameo roll-on in a Hyundai ad during this year’s Super Bowl.
The solid construction that equips a tricycle to haul engine parts around a factory floor happens to also be ideally suited to the rigours of selling hot-dogs in New York City’s mean streets — indeed, Worksman’s Bruce Weinreb told us that their carts frequently emerge from collisions in better shape than the car or lorry that hit them.
Worksman was founded in 1898, by Morris Worksman, an immigrant with a shop in what subsequently became the footprint of the World Trade Center, amidst the horse-drawn congestion of Lower Manhattan. He became convinced that tricycles (which, like their wheeled cousin, the car, were still a relatively new invention at the time) would make an excellent urban replacement for horses: longer-lasting, less expensive to maintain, and completely emissions free (as opposed to the 2.5 million pounds of manure New York City’s horses produced, per day, in 1900 — an escalating crisis that, according to delegates at the city’s first urban planning conference in 1898, meant that the city’s streets would soon be nine-feet deep in the stuff).
Morris began creating wheeled vending and delivery carts for local merchants, inventing a new gear system for Harley Davidson motorcycles along the way. The company struck design gold in the 1930s, however, when the newly formed Good Humor ice cream company came up with the idea of distributing its products on tricycles equipped with sleigh bells. Schwinn, a slightly older and larger bicycle company (still in operation, but no longer manufacturing in America) turned down the business, but referred Good Humor to Worksman, who developed the iconic front-load ice-cream tricycle, complete with dry-ice shelf and specially tuned chime bells, and still manufacture it today.
Worksman cannot claim design credit for its other contribution to the mobile food landscape of America: the classic diamond-patterned stainless steel New York City hot dog cart was developed by Ed Beller in the 1940s, based on the form of earlier wooden hot Frankfurter push carts. Beller bought the wheels for his umbrella-topped stainless steel boxes from his Lower Manhattan neighbour, Morris Worksman, and, in 1996, Worksman acquired Beller’s company (called Admar) and brought its production in-house.
A basic hot dog cart, with a sterno heater rather than propane, costs less than $4,000, and can be ready in ten weeks from order. For generations of immigrants, a push cart has represented the first micro-entrepreneurial rung on the ladder to a better life — famously, Goldman Sachs and Bloomingdale’s both began as street vending businesses. Hot-dog cart vending is largely a Bangladeshi trade now, with some Dominicans, having been dominated by Egyptians in the seventies. Manufacturing the carts is also an immigrant business: Bruce told us that when he joined Worksman, the welders were all Greek — former employees of Aristotle Onassis’ shipyards — whereas now they are majority Indo-Caribbean.\
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