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?”
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: