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.
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.
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: