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.”
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: