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.”
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: