The food truck craze has officially parked in one of the world’s most popular plazas: Times Square.

“Every great public place in the world, every great plaza, tends to have some kind of food option in it,” says Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

Throughout September and October, the Times Square Alliance opened food stands on the corners of its famous square, each stand featuring an international culinary sensation led by an equally international chef.

There is Salumè, with crunchy and warm Italian paninis; Nuchas, with inspired handheld foods, particularly the Argentinan empanada; Richshaw Dumplig Bar, with fresh Asian dumplings, salads, and noodles; and SNACK BOX, an espresso bar with gourmet hot dogs and milkshakes.

“About a year and a half ago, we did a first request to see what kinds of things people might want to do,” Tompkins says. “Once we learned what the interest was, we put out a more specific request for proposals.”

He says the four winners “came in with proposals that were very focused and emphasized the speediness of their operations.”

Michele Colombo, owner of Salumè, says the goal of his panini stand was to challenge the fast food paradigm.

“I believe there is no better location in New York City or probably the world to stage this concept: Italian indulgence at a New York tempo,” Colombo says. “I thought the quality I could reach was higher than the existing one.”

Colombo’s passion for what he calls “the true panini” is evident in his voice, in the crescendo of thick Italian accent as he outlines the three-tiered method for making a real Italian sandwich:

  • First, a good panini is made-to-order. “After the customer orders, that’s when we begin slicing the ingredients,” Colombo says.
  • Second, while the bread is important, “it is a means to the end. The end is the whole sandwich.” To that effect, a clear ratio between bread and filling is 1:2.
  • Third, and most importantly, Colombo never presses the panini. The stand lightly toasts the bread before filling it, but the different ingredients are not blended under a press. “That kind of blending happens naturally after the first bite is taken,” Colombo explains. “That is the real way Italian paninis are made.”

Colombo calls his Panini entrepreneurship his second life. “I came here six years ago [from Italy],” he says. “I came here from an inter-company transfer, as an advertising executive. I did want badly to come live in New York City. And then when my company asked me to pack and move again and go to Hong Kong, I simply said, ‘thank you, but no thank you,’ and I resigned. I wanted my family to keep living in New York City.

“It was then that I thought, ‘OK, now what? Another agency in the same industry, or something completely different?’”

Even though the only experience he’d had with restauranting was living “most of my life in Italy and eating a lot of paninis,” Colombo decided to show New York the real Italian sandwich.

The story of Ariel Barbouth, owner of Nuchas, is somewhat similar. He started out as a banker with engineer training before getting into the food business in 1999.

The idea for Nuchas came one night in New York City, when he was wining and dining some friends who were visiting.

“I was back in Argentina and taking some time off, and I brought two of my best friends to New York and took them out to dineer to all of the best places for a whole week,” Barbouth says. “And on the last day of their trip, I said, ‘Enough fancy schmancy, let’s order in.’ I ordered a box of empanadas from one of my favorite places, and as soon as I opened the box, the two of them were like, ‘Whoa. We don’t have this.’

“And even though I’d lived in New York a long time, I’d never really thought about it until that particular time, in 2006.”

With the seedling of an idea buried in his mind – to display Argentinian food in a key market – Barbouth finally gets the chance to wow not just best friends, but visitors of the world, with his food stand, Nuchas.

Nuchas features not just handheld food, but an Argentine-style breakfast croissant that alone he believes will make Nuchas a destination.

“My concept is inspired handheld foods of the world,” Barbouth says. “It’s really the perfect concept for Times Square, sort of the crossroads of the world and the melting pot. All our fillings and casings, they look like an empanada, but they could look like a samosa, a dumpling – the idea is that this is a starting point for us.”

By Sonya Chudgar

Chef Profiles, Industry News, NextGen Casual, Restaurant Design