“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.
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: