Inside D.C.'s Food-Truck Wars How some of Washington's most powerful interests are trying to curb the city's most popular new cuisine

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

If anyone can understand the tension between brick-and-mortar restaurants and the mobile army of food trucks that has stormed D.C. in the past year, it’s Stephan Boillon. After he lost his job at Dino in Cleveland Park in 2008, the veteran chef sought to launch an upscale sandwich shop on Connecticut Avenue NW. His plan was to offer only cold sandwiches, which would enable him to build a restaurant with no burners, no oven, and no deep fryers.

But even Boillon’s stripped-down concept was going to cost $750,000 before the doors opened—a figure that didn’t include rent, utilities, insurance, advertising, taxes, labor, association fees, or any of the other overhead it takes to operate a business in a neighborhood that expects a lot from its entrepreneurs.

So with credit tight and investment money scarce, Boillon found a cheaper way into the gourmet sandwich business: a food truck. For $50,000, one-fifteenth of the price to build his brick-and-mortar concept, Boillon started El Floridano, his rolling unit dedicated to home-made roast-pork Cubans and other bread-driven bites. Boillon had traded a restaurant’s higher profit margin for a truck’s lower start-up costs.

“If you have the volume and you keep your costs down, you can do 14-20 percent,” Boillon says. “With the truck, it’s closer to 10 percent.”

There were other business compromises that Boillon had to accept, too: that his truck could offer only a small range of menu items, that his main opportunity to sell those items would fall during a short and weather-sensitive lunchtime window, and that once those items were sold out, he couldn’t prepare more.

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Even with all these limitations, though, the chef figured he could make money. And why not? After years of gobbling down hot dogs, Utz chips, Lance crackers, and assorted other junk foods from sidewalk vendors, D.C. workers and residents were starving for something fresh. They had told the District government as much. In a 2006 survey, more than 66 percent of the respondents said, in so many words, that the variety of street food sucks. They wanted more ethnic eats, more seasonal foods, and more healthy options.

Boillon saw his opening.

He wasn’t the first. Fittingly enough, the District’s Twitter generation of food trucks launched during the inauguration of Mr. Hope and Change in January 2009, when the Fojol Bros. and their kitschy carnival of subcontinental cooking debuted on the National Mall during that frigid weekend. More trucks soon followed, advertising a change in D.C. street food with every 140-character Tweet. Before Washingtonians could say “dirty water dogs,” the streets were awash with Maine lobster rolls, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, Korean-style tacos, Indian butter chicken, Middle Eastern shawarma, and Canadian poutine.

If they so desired, locals would never have to eat another fake half-smoke again.

If only supply-and-demand economics were so easy. The sudden appearance of gourmet food trucks that delighted so many lunch-hour consumers simultaneously horrified the established restaurant community—a deep-pocketed, politically wired bunch.

Now, like in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and every other city where mobile vendors represent new competition, the District’s inline businesses are turning to the legislative process to ease their pain. Thus when it comes to the street-food options, you may not have the ultimate say. Lawyers, lobbyists, social-media activists, councilmembers, and business owners are all working the levers of power to determine what rolls your way for lunch.

And here’s the unique D.C. twist to this traditional battle between the rolling and stationary food providers: The old-school street carts, and the powerful depot owners who represent them, don’t care much for these four-wheeled foodies, either.

Case in point: One day Boillon parked his truck outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station, where he found himself locked in a battle with a food cart vendor. She was screaming. She was calling Boillon a criminal. She even called the Park Police. “She was berating the customers in my line,” Boillon recalls.

She was, in short, not going to just sit down and let these new food trucks run over her. She has plenty of company in this mission.


In the battle for Washington’s food dollars, the mobile vendors have public opinion—and 47,000 Twitter followers—on their side. But their competitors have what might be a more powerful weapon: money.

Well-financed entities like the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington have all submitted proposals asking the D.C. Council to put new restrictions on trucks. Some of the proposals are downright draconian.


“The concept of allowing commercial activity at a parking meter is inconsistent with the public policy that parking meters are for customers, not commercial activity or employees,” wrote Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, in a proposal to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “Parking meters are not appropriate locations. To allow a commercial activity there will directly compete with the business needs of the traditional inline businesses.”

Translation: Stick to the side streets.

“They should be required to stay mobile, and never be allowed to stay in one location more than 30 minutes,” wrote the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District. “They should also not be allowed to move to a second location on the same block or connecting blocks. They must move to a new location completely. This way, they do not destroy the ENTIRE lunch-business or dinner-business of anyone who does not have a property-tax-paying-business.”

Translation: Don’t make yourself at home.

The Adams Morgan BID went even further, proposing that the city forbid food trucks from parking “within a 100 feet of an existing food establishment of any kind.” It also wants them banned entirely from areas designated by the city as “entertainment districts,” such as U Street NW and Chinatown.

Translation: Hello, Congress Heights!

These proposals, among others, will be hashed out as the city’s revised basic vending regulations—in wonkese, Chapter 5 of Title 24—moves toward to the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.

The re-write is part of a plan, sanctioned by the council, to promote a more vibrant street-food culture. So food truck aficionados probably don’t need to worry about what the regs will look like when they reach Bowser’s committee. How they look when councilmembers are done with them, though, is another story.

There are at least two doomsday theories floating out there for the food trucks. Pressured by business groups, the council could find a way to reject or table the new regs, continuing a cumbersome status quo. Worse still, councilmembers could actually pass a law that kills off roadway vending in downtown D.C., no questions asked. Whatever happens, crunch time is approaching. By November, in terms of street-food ingenuity, the District could either become the next Los Angeles or remain the same bureaucratic backwater burg that has long allowed processed blandness to dominate its streets.


A business improvement district’s opinion, like its money, doesn’t just drop from the sky. It travels from the streets up, from the businesses that are taxed to help fund BIDs that, in turn, maintain and promote the neighborhoods in which they operate. As such, it’s not surprising that restaurant owners and BIDs often share the same opinion.

Take, for example, Arianne Bennett, co-owner of the Amsterdam Falafelshop. An Adams Morgan business owner, Bennett has something to lose in this battle with food trucks that wander into her turf, which is not to imply that her frustrations are all self-serving. But that’s not to say her anger is at all phony. Businesses like hers, she says, pay premium rents and high property taxes (not to mention annual BID fees) for locations along 18th Street NW and Columbia Road. They do so, in large part, to access the crowds who exit neighborhood watering holes at closing time and lumber into the streets in search of an easy nosh.

In a heartbeat, a food truck can swoop in, gratis, and take advantage of an environment that the businesses and BIDs have created. When Bennett signed a lease for her 18th Street location, she says, she knew exactly who her competitors were. She never thought the city would, one day, just allow a new one to park right outside her door. “We think [mobile vending] can be done better,” Bennett says, calling for a 30-minute limit on trucks in the neighborhood. “This Wild West mentality doesn’t work for us.”

If you talk to enough restaurateurs like Bennett, you’ll start to hear the same complaints about food trucks: the unfair disparity in sales tax rates (brick-and-mortars pay 10 percent on sales, trucks pay a flat $1,500 annually); the profusion of truck operators with out-of-state license plates; the sidewalk congestion that trucks can create; and, as Bennett points out, the trucks’ lack of responsibility to the neighborhood in which they vend.

Some of these complaints seem downright petty, like the one about out-of-state license plates. If you press someone like Alex Kramer, owner of Dos Gringos Café in Mount Pleasant and a vocal critic of business-poaching food trucks, she’ll readily admit that many D.C. business owners live in the ‘burbs, too.

But other complaints strike food truck vendors as legit, like Bennett’s resentment of roadway vendors who take from high-profile neighborhoods while giving nothing back. Leland Morris, president of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC, says he’d be willing to contribute to a neighborhood’s upkeep and promotion. That’s easier, of course, for a business like his. Selling lobster rolls at $15 a pop, Red Hook is a big fish in the small pond of mobile venders.


On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mobile operator sympathetic to Pierre Abushacra’s legal opinion. The co-owner of the Firehook Bakery chain accuses the city of violating its own law by exempting trucks from fixed-site permit rules. The law he’s singling out, the Vending Regulation Act of 2009, reads: “a person shall not vend from a sidewalk, roadway, or other public space unless the person holds…a vending site permit, or other authorization issued by the Mayor setting forth the specific location on public space from which the person may vend.”

Abushacra believes this arbitrary exemption has opened up a Pandora’s Box on District streets. The Firehook stores located on streets favored by food trucks, he says, have seen their sales drop between 10 and 35 percent during those hours when the venders are present.

He can’t speak to Abushacra’s sales figures, but Sam Williams, vending coordinator for DCRA, says there’s no special exemption for food trucks. As it stands, roadway vending has been legal for decades under the so-called ice cream truck law, which allows vehicles to pull over to vend so long as a crowd is already assembled. If there weren’t such a rule on the books, Williams says “about 600 vendors would have been out of business with the stroke of a pen.”

Of course, the law was written before Twitter became the go-to tool for assembling a crowd. In one of the great unintended consequences in modern D.C. politics, the rule that prompted food trucks to embrace Twitter as a way of advertising their ever-changing locations has also provided them a tool to rally public support in the face of critics like Abushacra.

Regardless of how the vehicles got on the streets, Abushacra doesn’t believe the city ever had a public debate on food trucks and their impact on the inline business community. Instead, it’s as if these vendors just magically appeared on the streets without any input from the people who would be affected. He believes DCRA unilaterally introduced food trucks without the proper D.C. Council authorization.

“I have no problem with something that’s transparent and fully debated,” Abushacra says.

The Firehook owner wants to have that debate now, and he wants the council to take its time: Legislators, he says, should table the debate until there’s more discussion of how best to regulate the new rolling businesses that operate on public space. He says he’d like to see food trucks eventually fixed to a permanent site via a public hearing process in which brick-and-mortars can testify about a truck’s impact on nearby establishments.

Abushacra might have missed his chance for that discussion. He sat on the vending task force that the council set up last year to seek agreement on regulations. The task force, dominated by business types, agreed on essentially one major item: that the city should create a permanent Vending Commission, which would supplant DCRA as the trucks’ regulatory overseer. But the task force, officially a temporary body, disbanded after a council-mandated 120-day term. It never achieved its goal of finding consensus on vending rules. Its request for a 60-day extension was rejected.

In the meantime, the city—which could be held in contempt if it suddenly stopped issuing permits—has continued to roll out more licensed food trucks.


Akbar Nazary is another food-industry veteran who’s raising regulatory-law questions about trucks. Nazary, though, doesn’t operate a business that ordinary noshers might frequent. He owns one of the three District depots that warehouse and supply the city’s hundreds of food carts. Under current regulations, Nazary says, all food vendors, including mobile ones, are “supposed to park and operate out of a D.C. commissary.” He says local depot paperwork is required in order to obtain a D.C. Department of Health permit.

The city says otherwise. According to DCRA’s Williams, vendors can legally store their vehicles or carts in facilities outside of the District. The Health Department just needs to verify that the facility in question has been inspected and licensed.

It’s easy to see why Nazary might wish the law were otherwise. He’s been operating WG Foods on Wiltberger Street NW in Shaw for 18 years. His brother-in-law owns a similar depot. Together, these companies have a near-monopoly on overnight storage of sidewalk food carts. Their position comes with benefits: They supply the carts with the processed snacks and chips and sodas that are ubiquitous on D.C. streets. By all reports, it’s been a lucrative business for Nazary and family.

Vendors have not always been as satisfied. Over the years, they’ve complained to DCRA about arrangements in which the depots force them to buy supplies or face eviction or higher rents. If you’re wondering why a sophisticated town like D.C. has had such an adolescent street food scene, these allegations supply a pretty good answer.

Without prompting, Nazary issues a denial. “Our vendors have total free will to sell what they want to sell,” he says. “We have no control whatsoever over the vendors.” If that’s the case, then why don’t Washingtonians see more variety on the streets? “The vendors have been around so long,” Nazary says, “and they’ve become comfortable in their ways.”


Like the restaurant community, Nazary and his fellow depot owners have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes war with the food trucks. Nazary himself was a member of the now-defunct vending task force, which was also co-chaired by Himmat Gulajan, a former depot owner. Gulajan, in fact, used to own Nazary’s depot.

If their efforts to set limits on roadway vending fail, however, Nazary suggests his business can survive the new competition: WG Foods Distributors, after all, serves many shops beyond the old-time street vendors; he compares his business to Costco. But he says he fears for those dirty-water-dog carts still on the streets. “The restaurants and the street vendors are losing money because of the trucks,” he says. “They’re not happy.”

It’s hard to verify Nazary’s claims along downtown’s sidewalks. Cart operators often don’t speak much English—or act like they don’t when a reporter asks invasive questions. I managed to ascertain from three separate vendors that business is indeed down. But none was willing to immediately blame the new food trucks. The owners have been noticing a steady decline since the economy started to tank in 2007.

At 12th and E streets NW, across the way from the Barnes & Noble, Meraf Zego Belay has been selling half-smokes and chips for 19 years. Last week, for the first time, she noticed two new trucks parked just up the street, including Boillon’s El Floridano. Belay says many of her regulars walked straight to the newcomers. It hurt her lunch business, she says.

A little or a lot?

Belay hesitates, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “A lot.” She smiles awkwardly, as if embarrassed or perhaps trying to put a happy spin on the news.

Are you worried about the food trucks at all?

“I’m not scared,” she says. “It’s business. You try.”


This past Monday night, the food truckers gathered at U Street NW’s Affinity Lab to hammer out their latest strategy: another online petition, this one asking followers to press D.C. Council to pass the vending regulations without changes. They’re planning to print out one-sheet flyers and pass them out at the trucks, too.

But vendors also want to get their socially networked flock out into the streets, a sort of Million Munchers March for better street food. They’ll be encouraging people to turn out at the inaugural Curbside Cook-off on Oct. 7 and 8 at City Center DC, where 20 vendors will show off the best of D.C.’s street eats. They’re thinking about holding a rally at the Wilson Building on the day the D.C. Council actually votes on the regulations sometime this fall.

The vendors’ organized efforts are simply an acknowledgement of a basic fact: They’re fighting a superior enemy, at least in terms of resources and power. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington provided donations to the 2008 re-election campaign of Councilmember Jack Evans, who’s worked to limit the number of food carts in Ward 2, the most desirable area for all vendors.

Earlier this year, Fojol Bros. founder Justin Vitarello got another taste of food-truck politics. Before the vending task force disbanded, Vitarello approached the body in search of common ground. He knew he was in enemy territory. The task force’s co-chairs were Gulajan and Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle BID. The vast majority of the members came from the business community. Some of the new-school mobile vendors, in fact, had been threatened with lawsuits when they showed up to the meetings.

Still, Vitarello pressed on. He showed a PowerPoint presentation that spelled out three overarching goals that might serve as a starting point. The first was to respect inline business. The second was to promote dynamic vending. The third was to create “enforceable & simple” rules. He then laid out his ideas to make mobile vending more palatable to inline businesses. The response? Crickets. “I felt that no one was engaging and listening,” Vitarello remembers.

At one point, Coite Manuel of Food Chain DC, which partners with hot dog vendors to supply them with more interesting meals, stood up and asked the room, “Are you listening to what he’s saying?”

Apparently not.


It was not long afterward that Vitarello started calling regular meetings of the truck owners to counteract the political power of inline businesses, BIDs, and depot owners. The owners knew, after all, that their clout lay with the nearly 50,000 people who follow their trucks on Twitter. They just needed to find a way to harness that power.

At one meeting, Boillon suggested that they direct their Twitter followers to submit public comments to DCRA, which had posted the proposed regulations online. Boillon created a primitive GoDaddy webpage, dubbed Yes on Title 24. He drafted a sample letter that followers could send to DCRA. Then the vendors hit their social networks.

One of the people to discover Yes on Title 24 was Asher Huey, an online organizer for a political consulting firm. He forwarded the petition to his friend, Matthew Slutsky, the director of partnerships at Change.org, a for-profit business that works with non-profits to promote their campaigns. Seeing an opportunity to tie the District’s emerging street-food culture into his company’s social-change mission, Slutsky took up the trucks’ cause. He created an online petition that was far more user-friendly than Boillon’s. His petition also targeted the entire D.C. Council, not just the legislative affairs specialist at DCRA. Then Change.org sent out the petition to the 20,000 D.C. residents on its list.

Never underestimate the power of grassroots organizing. By the close of the comment period on Aug. 31, DCRA had received around 2,400 e-mails. The vast majority of them supported the rules to keep the food trucks running.

It’s safe to say the comments were a bit more passionate than your typical public input on street-use regulatory matters. Take this one, from Thomas Fine:

Downtown DC has for years suffered from the stranglehold placed on food vendors by those who control the supplies of mobile vendors, and by unimaginative fixed-location food vendors. The result…is that, despite a large and diverse pool of potential customers, consumers have little lunch choice beyond nasty “hot-dog-and-chips” carts, dull sandwiches, and pay-by-the-pound food bars. Recently food trucks have attempted to meet the untapped desire for a modicum of choice, quality and creativity in food options. Rather than stepping up to meet the challenge by presenting better options, the fixed-location vendors, through their puppet BIDs and lawyers, are attempting to mis-use DCRA regulations to cut-off their customers’ lunch-time options.

But the mobile vendors also seem to understand their fragile new place in D.C.’s food hierarchy. As a result, they’re not total hardliners. They’re open to compromise, and they’re open to the city’s plan to create “development zones,” where trucks might have a fixed location one day in a park, where in turn the impact on local business would be lessened.

They’re also devising whole new ways of engaging with their inline counterparts. Red Hook’s Morris has developed one-day partnerships with local restaurants and shops. He’s worked with Chinatown Coffee, Bedrock Billiards in Adams Morgan, and Ireland’s Four Fields in Cleveland Park to seek arrangements that are beneficial to both parties, like the ability to take Red Hook’s lobster rolls inside a brick-and-mortar operation and order a discounted drink.

For the restaurant or coffee shop, the deal allows owners to tap into some of Red Hook’s devoted following, which is a neat irony. In this case, it’s not a truck poaching business from an established neighborhood, but an established neighborhood business gaining synergy via a hugely popular new truck, which tells you something about how far the mobile vendors have come in such a short time.

It also underscores a point made by Fojol’s Vitarello: The food trucks can actually create business in certain places. “There’s nothing going on at 20th and L,” he says, offering an example. “We can help [businesses] with that. We can activate some spaces.”

Video Features

Ditch Sidewalk Dogs: Five Trucks to Try

Dog tired? Aren’t we all. The District has been awash in sidewalk wieners – the dirty-water variety – for so long, we suffer from a sort of Post-Dogmatic Stress Disorder. We still get a little too excited about newly launched trucks that would barely merit a mention in more developed street-food towns.

So where should we take our traumatized tongues for a quality bite? Here are five of the best trucks on District streets now:

El Floridano (@FLmeetsDC)
Chef Stephan Boillon has created a concise menu of home-made sandwiches, which play off international snacks but are wholly their own.
The Fry Captain (@FryCaptain)
French fries and shakes may not sound like a meal, but under the watch of former Eatonville chef Rusty Holman, this combo will satisfy your palate, if not your nutritional needs.
The Red Hook Lobster Pound (@LobstertruckDC)
When Brooklyn-based Red Hook couldn’t secure the necessary permits for a food truck in NYC, the owners turned to D.C. One taste of their buttery lobster roll, and you’ll find yourself, perhaps for the first time, thankful for Big Apple bureaucracy.
Yellow Vendor (@yellowvendor)
The Little Yellow Cart has spawned a big yellow truck. It serves the same mouth-watering bulgogi that’s been available at 19th and L streets for years.
Fojol Bros. (@fojolbros)
This kitschy carnival of subcontinental cooking isn’t perfect. I find that its spinach and cheese dish leans too hard on the former (and on almost raw ginger) but the butter chicken has come into its own, a silky and spicy street bite.

Navigating Street Eats

Finding lunch by twitter alone can be a bit taxing. Fortunately, there are other ways. One example: thestr[EATS]dc, a new website by "George Washington University business students/foodies" that tracks and maps D.C. food trucks throughout the day.

The Twitter List

City Papers's list of all the D.C. street food on twitter.
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Our Readers Say

While the food trucks are an improvement for consumers, more competition always helps, D.C.'s street food scene still sucks. I would take NY's halal carts and warm prezels over any of the food trucks, carts, or whatever.
If the brick and mortar restaurants don't like the trucks, then they should offer more interesting food. I work in Chinatown and almost never patronize the uninspired chain restaurants that litter the neighborhood at lunch time. The food trucks -- with their Cuban subs, Korean tacos, lobster rolls and poutine -- have finally brought food that I am willing to eat to the neighborhood!
The complete failure of DC's brick and mortar establishments to provide affordable fare is inexcusable. Their attempts to quash the competition through legislation is appalling. NYC and Philly both beat DC hands down as far as affordable food options go.
As a once and future brick-and-mortar food business owner who enjoys the variety and ingenuity of the new trucks, I'm sympathetic to both sides of the argument. Cheers to Tim Carman for another thoughtful and balanced piece.

Another thing to consider: most readers are painfully aware of the geographic realities of Our Nation's Capital, and how small the city is when it comes to dining and entertainment options. It's therefore hard to compare the District to a place like Los Angeles. It's comparing apples to lobster-rolls.

A pie-in-the-sky thought: If only there was a way for the District to collaborate with Maryland and Virginia to allow for a metro-region-wide licensing and permitting program, it would allow for a larger footprint that would indeed more-resemble Los Angeles as a market. If the trucks had Silver Spring, Tysons Corner, Bethesda, Crystal City, etc. in addition to the District to rotate through, with some realistic rules that would help minimize the impact on inline businesses... that could help, no? A WMATA-type collaboration... minus the broken escalators?

Anyway, looking forward to a mutually-beneficial outcome for all.
Why don't brick and mortar restaurants get their food circulating via food trucks? duh. I would like to see a rocklands bbq food truck.

why don't food trucks come to dupont?
I have no beef {or lobster} with any of the food trucks as far as their setting up and competition, but there is a level playing field argument that can be made on taxes. I feel that overlay zones and moritoriums on restaurants, liquor licenses etc are a bad thing in general. But paying taxes is part of what citizenship. This is the only area where I have a problem with the truck.

My restaurant, Dino, has to collect and pay 10% in sales tax. A truck only pays a flat rate of $1500? By all accounts, the Lobster Truck is serving 100 customers a day at over $15 a pop for revenue of $1500, which, if in a brick and mortar establishment, means $150 for sales tax. So in 10 days time, they have gone from paying sales tax to tax free sales. And by all reports I have read, their sales are probably in excess of what I am using in the equation. Certainly not a level playing field there. And a perverse one, the more successful trucks will pay less sales tax as a percentage of their revenue than a less successful one.

You can argue that businesses pay too much in taxes or not enough, or that they get not enough service etc. But, in any case, one business selling food, trucks, should not have differential treatment than another. Put us all on an even footing and I say let 'em roll. Even if they are not on an even footing, then we business owners should try to get it so.... but not try to limit competition and ban them. That takes a vibrant part of life out of the equation of what makes DC a great place. My neighborhood's business association is dead set against the trucks and I think it a short sighted and incorrect position.
The restaurants are mad because nobody wants the same old thing. I'm tired of going to potbelly's, mcDonalds. These are people who came up with a great concept to serve us who are tired of processed, bland foods. I want the trucks to stay. Everybody is out here trying to make a buck, and they are crying about it. It's not like they are deliverying anything, or trying to get us to come in. Wake up and get up with the times, nobody has time to come in a place sit down, recieve possibly crappy service, eat, tip and try to get back in one hour. For those of us who work so hard we can only manage a few bites at our desk, give us what we want. Food Trucks
Well I'm glad he left because I went to Dinos, and sorry but I will never go back there again. I had some free form Lasanga there and my boyfriend and I were sick for 3 days. Maybe it was a bad batch, but it didn't taste great and it was a waste of 20.00 per plate.
I am a little shocked that even though the facts were put out there for you, that the commenters above just don't get it.

For brick and mortar places, the barrier to entry is high. Rent is expensive, you have an incredible insurance liability, you pay tens of thousands per year to DC for health inspections, tax. Then on top of that, you contribute additional monies to the BID you're in for neighborhood upkeep and beautification.

This versus some guy in a jalopy selling unregulated, untaxed and uninspected food to people. The barrier to entry is non existant.

I get that people want "choice", but there are better, fairer ways to do it.

The end game is this. If the city lets the unplanned and unregulated swarming of food trucks then all the brick and mortars go out of business. The city loses out on hundreds of millions per year in sales tax, many times that in property tax which obviously food trucks don't pay.

Then people will be right back here in a few years complaining about how their vibrant neighborhoods died, and all the storefronts are empty and dilapidated. In short...people will then be complaining that DC looks again like it did in 1988.

I also have a hard time taking any of the truck owners seriously, when the vast majority of them don't even live in DC. They don't pay any kind of taxes (property or otherwise) yet they want the District to defend their businesses.

Same for most of the random commenters. There are 420,000 "jobs" in the District and every day 309,000 people commute into DC from MD and VA to fill them. ~70% of the lunch crowd every day are out of towners and lunch is the only way DC can tax them to pay for all the vast expense of having them here, so who cares what MD and VA workers want.

This is all about the health and vitality of the District, not some suburban freebie
@Frankie - but the food trucks ARE inspected by the Health Department and do pay a $1,500 fee/tax. It's all spelled out in the article. Perhaps a better way of dealing with the food trucks would be the 10% sales tax instead of the $1,500 fee? Level the playing field a bit? Just remember - the food trucks wouldn't exist if the brick-and-mortar places were filling every need. They clearly are not - L'Enfant Plaza, perfect example - and the food trucks really help make it tolerable come mealtime.

And seriously, if you think a dude selling Cuban sandwiches at lunchtime is going to ruin a neighborhood, then what the hell ruined the neighborhood in 1988? It sure as hell wasn't Curbside Cupcakes, though it was often sold on the curb... . Perspective, son, perspective.
@Frankie - you are absolutely right. New York City has had a tremendous variety of food trucks for years. The result? You cannot find a single bricks and mortar food establishment anywhere in the five boroughs. The tax base has collapsed and the city is empty, save for the crack dealers and junkies who roam the streets preying on the city's starving children. I hear it is even worse in LA and Philly. These food trucks are the beginning of the end for DC. I say it is time that we all take a stand against competition! If we can keep the food trucks away, then we don't have to compete on price, quality or variety and the citizens of the district won't have any choice but to continue to eat our mediocre, overpriced junk. Who's with me?
Great reporting job; I have wanted to know the in and outs of truck vendors for some time. This discussion provided just what I wanted; listening to the vendors was like being there with them, and provided real glue for the story. I would like to see some of the trucks in Old Town and Del Ray; that would be a "stone gas".
Ray,

What Health Department Inspections? Brick and Mortars have mandatory inspections and have to submit to random ones, all of which they pay for. Street Trucks? None.

Dean Gold above gave a pretty compelling view of the tax issue. The lobster truck assuming 100 rolls a day which I am sure it does many more of) fulfills its taxation responsibility in 2 working weeks which brick and mortars have to pay for the remaining 50. How is that fair? If the lobster truck was paying regular taxes that any other brick and mortar had to pay, they would be paying $39,000 dollars a year in sales tax back to the city instead of $1,500

You say "food trucks wouldn't exist if the brick-and-mortar places were filling every need". and I say Food Trucks wouldn't exist of the playing field was leveled. If they had to pay regular DC sales tax, had to pay tens of thousands an year in rent, had to pay tens of thousands per year in BID taxes.

Nope..the trucks roll back to their homes in MD and VA having sucked much needed revenue from DC coffers and not returned any of it. What do they care if the neighborhoods they work in suffer as a result.

As for "seriously, if you think a dude selling Cuban sandwiches at lunchtime is going to ruin a neighborhood, then what the hell ruined the neighborhood in 1988?"

You really don't get it. I feel as though I am having a discussion with someone who barely knows how to tie his shoes.

For these brick and mortars, especially the ones without liquor licenses, the lunch crowd is a minimum of 50% of their revenue. They exist almost solely to service the 9-5 crowd. You take that away and they have no reason, or revenue with which to stay. Tell me you understand this...

Again, I don't give a rats ass about some VA or MD truck owner whining about how unfair it is to compel him to the same standards as his DC competition. Whatever he sucks out of the city and takes back with him to his suburban respite, I end making up for in higher taxes, higher priced food, services etc.
To clarify: I personally know at least three (Curbside Cupcake, Fojol & El Floridano) of the food truck owners reside in the district--two of them live on my street in ward one. Additionally, I am fairly certain Curbside Cupcake and El Floridano not only rent commercial kitchen space in the district, but they also house their trucks in DC.
Is his last name really Slutsky? Awesome.
@Frankie, just curious which inline restaurant you own, manage or represent? The owner operators of the trucks don't make DC tax code they merely abide by it. The trucks are inspected, at their cost every 3 months by the DOH and also have random inspections as well as DCFD inspections. The truck owners went with a business model that didn't require deep pockets in frugal times, stamping them out through regulation is the easy way out, if the inline businesses upped their game maybe their customers would go back.
Southwest DC near the Mall, L'Enfant Plaza is a perfect example of why we need food carts. The area has tens of thousands of workers and pitifully few available locations for inline businesses to set up for lunch service. As a result, the few retail lunch locations survive and thrive by maximizing speed at processing the throngs, not quality. We NEED the food trucks.

That having been said, I'm open to making sure the tax revenue from the food truck business is captured by the city and that the tax rate playing field is level. Is $1,500 flat fee really better than charging 10%?

Otherwise, we should do what we can to encourage these innovative businesses to fill the niche that they do. Consumers stand to benefit a great deal.
I work across from that L'enfant Plaza corner and the food trucks provide great variety as there are only 2-3 dog carts and Mike's popcorn cart (3 days a week).

Some of the prices are a bit high for the tastiness of the grub (a 3 dollar cupcake lady? R U Serious?), but they are welcome. And that screaming dog vendor is an annoyance in general; the dog carts are strictly a 'I only got 5 bucks today' option because tasty they are NOT.
If the restaurants' main complaint is all the taxes and fees, maybe they should be expending their energy getting rid of them, not forcing those taxes and fees on others.

Restaurants - if you want the business, do a better job. Justify the premium price or go out of business. That's what competition is all about. Don't get upset because someone else figured out a better business model.

Besides, it's not like there aren't enough people to go around. Everything is busy almost all the time. More options only means less waiting.
Great article. I can't believe Tim hasn't been poached from the CityPaper.

It is hard to take brick and mortar restaurants too seriously on this. If you have started a business, expect competition. There are probably a few reasonable restraints that could be put on food trucks. But not allowing them within 100 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant? Come on. That is nuts. In the food market, people definitely want variety. It is clear that people want food trucks. Find a way to make that happen. Brick and mortar restaurants: learn to compete in this new market.
I agree with J Muyrray - if the restaurants did a better job of serving quality food at decent prices at good hours - the food trucks wouldn't be necessary. The economy is affecting everyone - I hope theres a solution to this new headache.
@Frankie

You're having a bit of a consistency problem.

First, "...309,000 people commute into DC from MD and VA...~70% of the lunch crowd every day are out of towners and lunch is the only way DC can tax them...who cares what MD and VA workers want."

Then, "They [restaurants without liquor licenses]exist almost solely to service the 9-5 crowd. You take that away and they have no reason, or revenue with which to stay."

Finally, "...the trucks roll back to their homes in MD and VA having sucked much needed revenue from DC coffers..." Along with the 308,999 other slobs from MD & VA?

So am I a blight on DC because I live in VA and work here and buy lunch? Or a boon to the local restaurants? That "Taxation without Representation" thing only applies if you spend the night? Should I just buy food at Costco and bring my lunch from home? And how is it the Food Truck's fault that DC Tax Policy is a mess?
@Curious,

I'm an engineer, don't own a bar or restaurant. I am a property owning, long term resident of the District of Columbia who clearly has skin in the game. Why? Because that $37,500 dollars the Lobster Truck, a New York business with NY owners doesn't have to pay into the city coffers every year is made up for by folks like me.

Question right back at you, what Food Truck do you own? Are you even a District resident?

Requiring a business to "gasp" pay the same sales tax you expect from any other business isn't "additional regulation". Also holding these trucks to the same basic traffic and parking laws that any regular "joe" in a car has to abide by isn't draconian either.

Like I said, I understand people want "choice" and there is nothing wrong with that. But the playing field has to be leveled. At the absolute BARE minimum, food trucks need to be responsible for the standard 10% sales tax.

I would also push for them making tax contributions to whatever BID they do business in as well. Not exactly fair that all the brick and mortars you are trying to take business from pay additional taxes to beautify and clean the areas you like to do business in, to clean up the trash created by your sales.

@Jc59,

"So am I a blight on DC because I live in VA and work here and buy lunch? Or a boon to the local restaurants? That "Taxation without Representation" thing only applies if you spend the night? Should I just buy food at Costco and bring my lunch from home? And how is it the Food Truck's fault that DC Tax Policy is a mess?"

If you work here and buy your lunch from a NON sales tax paying lunch truck, then yes, you are a full on blight to DC. What are you contributing to the DC tax base?

You don't pay any income tax in DC, you don't pay any property tax, and now we've established you don't pay any sales tax. Yet, you drive the roads, walk the sidewalks, use the sewars, create trash...What is it that you don't understand?

Buying lunch in/at a sales tax paying establishment = good
Buying Lunch in/at a non-sales tax paying establishment = bad

Not sure what you are saying when you point out that no, I don't get Congressional Representation for my taxation.

And lastly, it isn't the Food Trucks fault that there was a loophole for them that they exploited. It is their issue now that that are fighting the proposed fixes to that loophole by whining like petualnt children, upset because the uneven playing field is being leveled to the fairness of all.




While I appreciate the effort Mr. Carman makes in addressing the issues surrounding food trucks in the District, I hardly found the article to be fair and balanced nor do I believe he presented all the facts. The majority of restaurants in DC are independently owned, single-unit operators that struggle to get by every year. His portrayal of all brick and mortar restaurants as deep pocketed operators who have failed to provide DC with a quality product is completely off base, if not insulting. Bars and restaurants help create a quality of life in the city that will never be filled by food trucks. DC’s food scene has never been better, and anyone who disagrees clearly knows very little about food. Restaurateurs from New York and L.A. are flocking to DC to open new locations (as was recently reported in the Business section of the Washington Post) and local chefs having started to open new locations across the country. Brick and mortar restaurants have helped bring new life into neighborhoods across the city that have been neglected for years. This past weekend H Street, NE held a street festival that was a huge success, which was mainly due to the time and money invested in the neighborhood by the small business owners of bars and restaurants that have made a once dead area of our city alive again. While I agree with Frankie for the most part, I do not share his disdain for our neighbors in MD and VA. I believe if people who work in the District, but live in the suburbs, would come into the city more often for dinner or on the weekends than they could see for themselves what a great place DC has become. I hope the city is able to find a way in which to regulate the food trucks to please all the parties involved, but I think Mr. Carman should have done a little more investigating into the problem before letting his obviously predetermined opinions get in the way of understanding a complicated problem. I just hope our city council does a better job.
@Frankie

Let me get this straight... the people who don't live within DC city limits are a blight on the city? Especially if they buy from food trucks. OK, well let's continue than...

I am going to assume most people who live in the 'burbs' of DC and commute into the city for work are middle/upper class, obviously not everyone but a few. I will than make another reasonable assumption: these middle and upper class workers work for fairly large or wealthy business, of some sort, which indeed DO pay taxes to the city. So without the workers the businesses couldn't operate and couldn't pay the taxes and than what?

I guess people could move into the city but from what I have seen... no thanks

And than back to food trucks...
people pretty much covered the bases but I will agree I think the sales tax should be the same, but when you start adding in a bunch of nonsense people don't listen to that one reasonable argument.

Thanks, and when you respond, try to make sense. It doesn't count when you make things up.
This article is so biased it is hard to take seriously. Take the subtitle, "How some of Washington's most powerful interests are trying to curb the city's most popular new cuisine", does the author really believe Washington's most powerful interests are the brick and mortar restaurants of the District? I also think Drew and Andrew did a wonderful job in the videos of interviewing a bunch of people that share the same uneducated opinion.
DC food manages to be terrible and expensive at the same time. No wonder these trucks are stirring things up.
Im really surprised on how several people on here are FOR these food trucks. I live in what use to be a really nice, quite neighborhood until one of those food truck just parked infront of my neighbors house. Not only do we have to deal with all the mess their customers leave behind but also with all the people they attract. People that just stand their looking in your house while they eat, tons of homeless people just laying around. The worst part is that their is nothing we can do about it. For all you people that think these food trucks are great, you should give me your address so I can send one infront of your house. I would like to hear your opinion after one week!
JAV - You're an idiot. You're seriously suggesting hordes of homeless people follow the food trucks around so they can lay down when the trucks are serving customers? And you're complaining that people on the sidewalk can look into your house? Are you kidding? Move to the boonies, then you can live on a hundred acre lot and not have to worry about people looking at your house. Or, better yet, put on some clothes while you're walking around the house so people don't laugh at what little God gave you.

Here's my suggestion: Since Firehook Bakery is openly trying to put out of business some of its competitors, how about DC consumers boycott Firehook Bakery? I think it's super pathetic when a business can't compete and then runs to the government to try to kill off its competitors.

Thanks Piere Abushakra! I won't be visiting any of your stores any more.
Commonsense, your argument is far from your moniker.

Forgetting for a second that just because a business is located somewhere, doesn't mean that it actually pays corporate taxes there (headquarters situations aside, why do you think so many businesses incorporate in places like Delaware?), your "So without the workers the businesses couldn't operate and couldn't pay the taxes and than what?" was beyond ridiculous... its obvious you have no idea what you are talking about.

Answer this question...what comes first, the business or the employees?

Random "potential" employees don't band together and open a corporate office. A business decides to open a branch in DC and hires people to fill it. Get it?

MD and VA have done a spectacular job shooting down any reciprocal income tax agreement...well because DC doesn't have Congressional Representation and their citizens earn tens of billions of dollars in the District they bring home to be taxed there, its free money to them. We can't fix that, but we sure as hell can close these loopholes that benefit, to a large extent business and residents outside the District.

It is completely unfair for any food/beverage business to be excluded from their entire tax burden at the expense of the neighborhood they are in. I don't care where you live or what you sell.



Food trucks (the new ones such as lobstertruckDC) are tax cheats, cheating DC out of much much money. Can't wait till an end is put to this thievery.
If the issue is one of taxes, then by all means ask the City Council to raise the taxes paid by all street vendors.

And then watch the old hot dog vendors squeal about how that will crush their all-cash, no tax-reporting businesses. And Marion Barry will ride to their rescue.
Clearly, the rules could be made more fairly. But it seems the major complaint is not about taxes but competition. Welcome to America. If I want a quick lunch and I know the cart will produce my lunch faster than than than the brick and morter, guess where I'm going? At the same time, if I want to sit down with a friend and chat over lunch, I'm not going to a cart. Both have roles to fill and clearly people want choice. I'm so tired of ordering ahead brick and morter establishments and when I show up at the appointed time still wait 10 minutes for my food. There is no reason brick and morter establishments can't develop a business model that makes them more competative with carts when it comes to quick eats.
Food trucks are awesome, and deliciously disruptive. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but lawful food trucks will abide by them as much as anyone else. Jeebus how many restaurant tax/immigration/drug scams do you need to hear about to realize that cheaters cheat and restaurant owners are notoriously far from the exception?

B&Ms, beat em at their game or f**k off
wow, so glad i left my hometown of DC. is there any chance for creativity to thrive in the District? yes, but it's very slim.

"Level playing field" - hahaha i wonder how many of these inline restaurants got their start by OLD MONEY, old oil money, mom and dad money, inheritance money. VS those who actually made money for themselves. spoiled folks who've never really had to work won't understand that.

COMPETITION is one foundation of this country AND business. instead of running to your political friends in high places, why not STEP YOUR GAME UP and improve your business.

too many Washingtonians (ie- business owners) are so happy with the status quo that THEY made it so easy for these trucks to come in and garner so much success. now, that they realize that their product is BORING, NASTY and nothing short of GARBAGE, they want to kill someone's else business.

would this even be an issue if inline restaurants weren't losing money to better competitors ??? NOPE.
yes DC is this lame. Im just newly back in town after spending the last 25 years in New York where food trucks are more common. Guiliani limited them and made a lottery system with the few licenses he permitted. put a lot of them randomly out of business overnight, (hate guiliani) all thats left really are hot dog stands mostly, much like here. Now that i am revisiting those restaurants here in dc i recaled from my younger years ive found that they do mostly suck. Im lookimg forward to the food trucks for their innovation and higher standards for taste and lower priced gourmet food. 20 dollar lunches for mediocre food is a rip off and they need to compete better rather than cut quality to maximize profits. also hire people who can cook rather than the worker who will accept the least amount of money!
The brick and mortar stores complaining about the food carts and trying to have them regulated out of business is akin to buggy whip manufacturers and sellers trying to have automobiles over-regulated in order to get rid of their competition. It's a new day. If you can't compete, then you're a dead business. Get used to it; get over yourselves.
Well if DC would lower the taxes on regular resteraunts then they could actually compete. The majority of DCs taxes go to all of the welfare and free programs and are of no benifit to society. I am glad money goes outside of DCs crappy taxes!!
By the arguement that 70% of people commute from VA/MD to DC we should buy food from foodcarts from VA to keep money AWAY from DC.
I am NEVER going back to Firehook bakery again after reading this article.

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