Young and Hungry

D.C.’s Street Food Scene Is Ready to Explode

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In preparation for my chat this afternoon with Kojo Nnamdi, I tugged yet again on the ear of Sam Williams, the vending and special events coordinator for D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Agency. He's my Deep Throat when it comes to understanding the complex world of D.C. street vending.

One of the main stumbling blocks to new and better street food options are the dirty-water-dog vendors already on our sidewalks.  Mostly immigrants, these veteran vendors have routinely stirred up concerns that passing new regulations would essentially put them out of business, since Washingtonians would soon have many more options for street-based snacks.

There is, no doubt, truth to their fears. But both the city and a private company, Food Chain, are working with existing vendors to show them that they don't have to cling to their old dogs.

Food Chain has been cooking up jerk chicken wraps and tacos for a number of local vendors, who sell the spicy snacks under their standard-issue Sabrett umbrellas. It's a model that has proven surprisingly popular, assuming of course people know the carts are selling these new bites.

But the city has also quietly been talking to some Ethiopian vendors about switching their carts over to their native cuisine, Williams tells me, so that they'll stand out from the coming crowd of street foodies.

"There's tons of fear about trying something new...and totally different," Williams says. The vendors, many of whom could already be living week to week, fear that the switchover would cost them too much money to upgrade their carts or fear that the new cuisine may not even sell. There's comfort in the old ways.

But those old ways will likely not serve them forever. Williams estimates that about 200 potential vendors are just itching to hit our streets once the new regulations pass, which could happen by this summer. About 25 percent of those 200 vendors, Williams says, are looking to sell food.

The future options, Williams says, will include "every kind of food under the sun," from "pizza to every type of international food out there."

Comments

  1. #1

    What's with pointing out that they are "mostly immigrants"?

    In what was is that relevant to the story?

  2. #2

    Emily,

    I know using the term "immigrant" is loaded these days, but the fact is that the food business has often been the way that first-generation immigrants have made a living in America. Immigrants probably cook most of the food you eat in restaurants, even in high-end restaurants. It's particularly important in this context, because street carts lend themselves to international foods. If the streets start teeming with new carts and trucks, these veteran vendors may be able to fall back on their native cuisines and make an even better living than selling so-called "American" snack foods.

  3. #3

    Hey Tim we finally got our kitchen open so we're smoking the jerk chicken every day now. Keep an eye out this summer: we're going to pop up in a few more spots with some new menus.

    Thanks!
    Coite Manuel
    Food Chain

  4. #4

    Tim,
    Thanks for clarifying. I wish you'd made that point in the article, though -- without the explanation, the "mostly immigrants" bit seemed odd and out of context. One would hope that they would be able to sell some native cuisine if more carts caused competition -- but this assumes that the people in these carts also happen to be good cooks (or could afford to hire a staff to handle cooking duties) and involves far more cost in terms of insurance, buying ingredients, staffing, etc, than just selling Cheetos bought at wholesale.

    I realize that most of the food I eat in restaurants has been handled by immigrants (from the migrant workers who picked the tomato to the worker slicing it up for my salad), and I appreciate their hard work!

  5. #5

    If the lines outside L'Enfant Plaza Maryland Ave. SW Metro stop are any indication, the trucks will make a killing down here. Fujol Bros. has a line a half a block long, same with Mike's Popcorn and the Cupcake truck (even with their 3 buck cupcakes) does a nice business as well. Send 'em on down and send an ice cream truck while you're at it.

  6. #6

    Emily,

    I'm not trying to be contrarian here, which I find really tiring on blogs. But I do want to point out that for a lot of people from other countries, it's not difficult to switch to their native cuisine. America has a much more deeply ingrained restaurant culture; other cultures are more deeply invested in home cooking, which is where a lot of so-called "ethnic" food comes from -- home cooks transplanted to our country.

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