The Vendy Awards showcase New York's top street vendors

Founded to benefit an amazing initiative called the Street Vendor Project, New York’s annual Vendy Awards are a competition between the best of the city’s famous street vendors. Over the last few years, the Vendys have grown from humble beginnings into a yearly “must-attend” for foodies, and this September they’re raising the stakes again with a fantastic setting on NYC’s Governor’s Island. A great time, a great cause: we think the Vendys are really showing the special power of events! We caught up with Vendys director Amy Kantrowitz to hear more about the awards and their remarkable growth.

What are the Vendy Awards, and how many years have they been going on?

The Vendy Awards are the annual competition to name NYC’s Best Street Food Vendor, and a fundraiser for the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy and legal support for street vendors across NYC. The event is a head-to-head cook-off, where the city’s best street chefs battle for several awards, including the coveted Vendy Cup, awarded by a team of celebrity judges, and audience choice awards in several categories. Tickets get attendees all the food they can eat, as well as beverages, and the money raised supports the Street Vendor Project.

The first Vendy Awards took place in the fall of 2005, when 150 people gathered in a garage where vendors store their carts in the East Village. The response was amazing and the event has grown each year: last year we sold out before the event, and people were scalping tickets. This year, our Sixth Annual Vendy Awards, we are expecting close to 1,000 people (some of the travel from across the country and around the world to attend), international press coverage, and our best Vendy Awards yet. The 2010 Vendys will be held on Saturday September 25, 12-5 on Governors Island, NYC.

What is your relationship with the Street Vendor Program, and why is it such an important cause?

Sean Basinski, Director of the Street Vendor Project, founded the Vendy Awards as a way to celebrate NYC street vendors and raise funds for the Street Vendor Project. As the event has grown, we’ve been able to raise both money and community awareness about the challenges street vendors face every day. Most vendors are low income people, usually immigrants, with little legal or political clout. Over the last twenty years, it’s gotten much harder to vend as there has been a decrease the number of licenses available, many streets have been declared off-limits to vending, and the city has raised fines to as much as $1,000 per ticket for technical violations of the vending rules, like placing your cart more than 18 inches from the curb. Street vendors work incredibly long hours, in all kinds of weather and under very challenging conditions. People can learn more about the Street Vendor Project and its work at streetvendor.org.

How did you get all these great sidewalk cooks involved? Some might see that as a daunting prospect.

It’s been relatively easy to get vendors on board with the event. The Street Vendor Project is well known and well respected among street vendors. Past winners and nominees have gotten incredible press from participating and seen tremendous increases in their businesses. Once you’re a Vendy nominee, it’s a different world for the vendors – you get written up in many places and the traffic follows. Finalists are nominated by their fans on our website, which helps us connect with vendors from two directions: people nominate their favorite vendors, and vendors ask their fans for their support. There is NOTHING better than getting to make the phone calls or cart/truck visits to tell a vendor they are a Vendy finalist. Last year, I’m pretty sure two finalists were in tears as I broke the news over the phone. We are also blessed with a multi-lingual team of volunteers and friends, which helps tremendously as the street food vendor community hails from… everywhere.

What have you done to attract sponsors to your event?

We have been very fortunate to have several sponsors stick with us for at least three years. Some of our sponsors already knew about the Vendys and came to us directly. Others we approached, working out ways for them to support the event. In some cases, Street Vendor Project staff or Vendy committee members (the event is organized by a die-hard group of volunteers) will be at an event and just mention that they help organize the Vendys, and people offer raffle items, connections, ideas about sponsorships, and of course, ask if they can be judges. (Aside: if you buy your tickets before June 1, you will be entered into a lottery to be our “Citizen Judge,” so don’t dawdle if this is a dream for you!)

Why did you select Governors Island as a venue, and how did you procure it?

The event travels each year. Last year we were at the Queens Museum of Art on the site of the 1964 World Fair. In 2008 we were at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Over the winter, as we were debating our site, Governors Island approached us about hosting this year’s Vendys, which was a tremendous honor. Governors Island is a former Coast Guard Base in New York Harbor, just a few minutes by ferry from both Brooklyn and Manhattan. It is one of New York City’s hidden treasures, although I think this year it won’t be so hidden as they are expanding the number of incredible community events and the buzz is already building. They knew about the Vendys from last summer, when several past Vendy finalists and winners participated in City of Water Day—a major festival celebrating the NYC waterfront—and were a huge hit with the crowds.

Last, what kind of promotion and social media efforts have you found successful for building buzz and community, both before and after the event?

Last year was our first real foray into social media. We announced last year’s dessert finalists via Twitter, and will be planning special announcements and opportunities via social media this year. My “social media expert” volunteer has a ton of things in the works. People should follow us on Twitter and on Facebook to see all that she is cooking up for us in the lead up to this year’s Vendys!