You’ve got a Hankering. There’s a Dealer. He’s your Dealer, and he’s got a Drill.
Maybe you text him, head by his apartment and buy some Goods from his Stash. But he’s got to be careful. You don’t just call the Dealer from a cell phone on your way over to buy the Goods. The Dealer would freak out if you did that, like dealer Eric Stoltz freaked out on John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
“Prank caller! Prank caller!”
So the Dealer comes up with a System.
The System works for awhile, but then the Dealer decides home isn’t the best place to sell. Maybe it’s Heat from neighbors. Maybe the Man has been snooping around. So the Dealer moves to the Street. And he adapts his System to the Street. Text the right number and go to the right corner at the right time and talk to the right guy and that Guy can get you what you need.
Your Dealer is the Doctor.
First, the Doctor sold out of his apartment. Then the Man brought the Heat and the Doctor hit the Street. He became that Guy.
And he played the Part. Gold chain. Dark glasses. Dope ride. Homeboy outfit. Silly look, but his shit was the Shit. It was so good word got around. People came for it from miles away.
It was so good the Doctor’s photo started to appear in the Papers. His face, at least how it looked framed by aviator sunglasses and a hat, became known. This wasn’t good because in the Business the Doctor was in — that would be the Lawbreaking Business — you definitely don’t want your picture taken. Plus, the Doctor was still prepping the Goods in his apartment.
It was only a matter of time before the Man put it all together and everything came crashing down.
Which is what happened late last summer.
The Doctor, somewhat more formally, went by “Dr. Claw.” And while you may think you know something about the Goods and the Stash and the System and the Drill by now, this isn’t The Wire.
Dr. Claw never sold drugs.
He sold lobster rolls. Illegally. Through Facebook.
The birth of Dr. Claw
Both by my estimation and his own, Dr. Claw, a self-described “lobstah pushah,” does things that are interesting, not wrong. Sometimes, though, the interesting things he does happen to be illegal.
That includes boiling and preparing lobster rolls in a small nautical-themed apartment kitchen and selling them on the streets of Brooklyn without the proper city inspections and paperwork.
Claw stayed ahead of the law for a time by devising a clever system for vetting potential customers. First, a person would contact him through Facebook. Claw would check out their profile. Maybe Google them. So long as a check didn’t reveal they worked for the city health department, Claw deemed them worthy.
Claw would use Facebook to inform potential customers about when he would be selling his rolls and provide a number for people to text. He’d boil up lobsters and toast up a number of rolls — sometimes more than three dozen — and exchange a brown paper bag filled with crustacean goodness with those who came to his apartment door.
With all the hipster foot traffic, Claw’s neighbors came to believe he was dealing drugs. Soon, the fire department came to his door and demanded he stop cooking indoors with propane. He did. But rather than call it quits, Claw decided it was time to take his operation to the streets.
Initially, selling outside was like selling inside. When he started, he hadn’t yet developed a persona. He was just a guy with a growing reputation for illegally selling excellent lobster rolls for less than $15 apiece. Then, spurred by one particular street transaction, he had an epiphany.
A customer approached him and, without so much as slowing down or saying a word, handed the cash to Claw, took the brown paper bag and disappeared.
“That kid has clearly bought drugs on the street before,” Claw remembers thinking at the time. “He knows the system.”
Right around that time the trend-spotting website Thrillist contacted Claw about an article and photo shoot.
“So I called my friend who’s a photographer and I said, ‘I’m going to make a character,’” says Claw.
Claw says Ali G, the famous prankster portrayed by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, inspired him. He says his costume “was designed around a dude who was from Boston. And all he talks about are the Red Sox, clam chowder and lobster rolls.”
He put the outfit together in about an hour. “Glasses. Hat. Chain. That crazy claw,” he says, referring to a lobster claw emblem he spray-painted gold and attached to a fake gold necklace.
Dr. Claw was born.
Food without rules
I made Claw’s acquaintance the way most people did: late last summer I friended him on Facebook. News reports at the time said the health department had posted a notice on his door, effectively shutting him down.
I spoke with him at length soon after at a doughnut shop near his apartment in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood made up of Polish immigrant families that in recent years has become better known as the setting of some sort of hipster-diaspora reunion.
In Claw’s New York City, like many places in the United States, it’s illegal to sell food prepared in a home kitchen. There are numerous city regulations in place and countless bureaucrats to enforce the regulations and hand out fines to those who run afoul of them.
Restaurants like the doughnut shop are licensed and permitted and inspected by these same bureaucrats. Rules and real estate costs can mean it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a restaurant.
Claw had run a restaurant. He slept in the storefront. He worked hard. The restaurant worked, and then it didn’t.
Next, Claw starred in a reality show that aired on British television. The show put him on the road, traveling across America. Claw noticed and appreciated the freedom from regulatory oversight that people who live “off the grid” experience.
“I did a cross-country tour and I was just amazed at how easily you can just set up — not just camp but set up homes,” says Claw. “Nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit.”
Earlier experiences as a rebellious teenager left their mark, too. Claw’s Boston-area family tried to correct his flaws as a high school student by sending him to school in England and later enrolled him in an ultra-preppy boys school closer to home. “That was when I started to get really pissed at that kind of over-the-top rulemaking,” he says.
There are others
Even after the city shut him down, Claw remains convinced his underground business model never sprung a leak.
“I don’t think — from looking at my Facebook — we have anyone who’s infiltrated this,” he says. “I don’t think there’s someone who’s getting my texts and stuff, and figuring out where I am.”
While Dr. Claw has come and gone, he’s spawned imitators, some of whom have also cycled through the underground. One such seller was Bread.Butter.Cheese, who illegally sold gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches in Manhattan’s East Village for several months before halting operations in October 2010. Unlike Claw, the Man never caught up with Bread.Butter.Cheese, AKA Ronnie.
When we spoke, Claw displayed grudging admiration for B.B.C.
“In some ways what he’s doing is cooler because he’s never showed his face and he’s really stayed anonymous through the whole thing,” says Claw. “But he didn’t get to that accidentally. He saw my mistakes.”
Indeed, he did. B.B.C. would announce menu items through his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Potential customers could text orders using Google Voice. Then he would meet the customer on a street corner at an appointed time and exchange cash for a grilled cheese sandwich — like Claw’s rolls they are served in an anonymous brown paper bag. Similar methods, to be sure, except Ronnie never allowed his face to be photographed.
Ronnie says by email that social media was “the only way I ha[d] of communicating with customers.” Like Claw, social media tools helped him “avoid all DOH regulation in the city of New York[,] since I work out of my apartment kitchen that is not licensed by the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.”
Ronnie, like Dr. Claw, was a Dealer with a Drill and a System for selling Goods from his Stash. These entrepreneurs both did interesting things that weren’t wrong, just illegal. And as long as hungry people have a hankering, entrepreneurs like them will use social media and other emerging tools to buck an often-oppressive regulatory system in order to make and sell great underground food.
(Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a grassroots nonprofit advocating in favor of culinary freedom and against oppressive food laws. You can become a member at http://www.keepfoodlegal.org/ and follow on Twitter @keepfoodlegal.)
(Top image of Dr. Claw used with permission from Laurie Pila.)