Young and Hungry

Rolling With the Punches: Food Truck Winners and Losers

Food Truck Winners and Losers

It’s safe to say that culinary Washington pays more attention to Twitter feeds announcing food truck locations than to Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs regulatory dumps. But last Friday’s release of proposed new vending rules may have been an exception.

The new regs—the subject of two years of debate—were supposed to help settle the rules for the burgeoning population of food trucks.

For truck operators, it’s a moment of truth: Will D.C. develop the sort of dynamic four-wheeled culinary culture that marks cities like New York, Portland, and Los Angeles? At least 35 trucks now operate here, serving everything from Spam sushi to alligator cheesecake. But much of the city remains dominated by sidewalk vendors whom city regulations essentially force into serving nothing but hot dogs.

For traditional restaurants, the issue is just as crucial: Brick-and-mortar eateries see even the food-truck status quo as profoundly unfair to businesses that spend money on storefronts, subsidize neighborhood business districts, and pay taxes.

Both sides lobbied to change an aging set of provisions that wasn’t really created with Washington’s expanding fleet of 21st-century nomadic nosh spots in mind. Deep-pocketed organizations including the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington pushed for tighter restrictions. The truckers, meanwhile, formed their own advocacy group to lobby for greater entrepreneurial freedom.

When the rules finally arrived last week, there was little sense that the issue was actually resolved. Kristi Whitfield, executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association, calls the new regs “a huge improvement,” but says there’s still room for improvement. Restaurant Association representative Andrew Kline says “it’s a good start,” but adds that it “satisfies nobody’s needs.” Neither side is done arguing: The process allows another 30 days of lobbying before the D.C. Council votes on the regulations.

With neither Kline nor Whitfield claiming victory, here’s a quick analysis of who won and lost in this latest skirmish in the food-truck wars.

* * *

Issue: Where can food trucks park?

Old rule: Trucks can occupy virtually any legal parking space—even right outside a competing restaurant. Traditional restaurants hate this: While brick-and-mortar establishments must survive a gauntlet of regulatory and community approvals, their competitors can simply pull up to the curb. Truckers wanted change, too, hoping to see vendor parking passes that would help them avoid costly parking tickets.

New rule: The trucks can still park in any legal spot—but they also have to keep feeding the meter and observing posted time limits, and face tickets when they don’t.

Who wins: Food trucks—for now. The trucks maintain their greatest assets, mobility and the ability to respond to customer demand. But this could change: The new regs also allow for the creation of “vending development zones,” which could lead to mandatory vending locations in designated areas. Whitfield worries that certain neighborhoods could become “food truck free zones” under that change. Kline, meanwhile, believes city laws require the designation of specific vending locations no matter which neighborhood.

Issue: Can food trucks simply set up shop and await customers?

Old rule: No. The District enforces the “ice-cream truck rule,” which says vendors can only pull over where customers are already gathered (it’s why ice-cream trucks play jingles). For decades, the rule made things tough for mobile vendors of foods more complicated than frozen Good Humor treats, until Twitter offered a way to assemble a crowd in advance. But still, the trucks wanted change: A customer who hails a truck via Twitter (“I’ll be there in five minutes!”) doesn’t count under the existing rule. If no others are waiting, the truck can’t stay.

New rule: Sort of. Dessert vendors can park for “no more than ten (10) minutes” without a line. Non-dessert vendors can park for “the duration of the time allowed by the parking meter.”

Who wins: Food trucks. The new rules better fit the way modern eats mobiles operate, even if the discrepancy between types of vendors seems unfair to dessert purveyors. (The logic is that savory trucks need more time to prepare food in their vehicle.)

Issue: How late can food trucks operate?

Old rule: 10 p.m. on weekdays, 1 a.m. on weekends. Truckers wanted to change this, since the existing rule effectively prevents them from serving late-night crowds in bar-heavy areas like Adams Morgan. Restaurants there are happy with the status quo since folks on the street after last call are good for business.

New rule: the same.

Who wins: Restaurants. “We thought that food trucks on the street as bars are clearing out and drunk people are stumbling out onto the street would be a great sort of midpoint to...get a little food into people,” Whitfield says. Now, those besotted eaters remain a captive audience for brick-and-mortar eateries.

Issue: Should food trucks pay sales tax?

Old rule: No. Truckers pony up a flat $1,500 annual payment in lieu of taxes. This infuriated restaurant operators, who pay 10 percent in taxes, not to mention BID fees that subsidize things like disposing of the garbage that food truck patrons leave in public trash cans.

New rule: the same

Who wins: Food trucks. Not only are their taxes not going up, but the regs’ new employee licensing procedures effectively make it cheaper to staff a truck, since they no longer require every worker onboard to be a fully licensed vendor.

* * *

In the end, of course, food truck regulations are one thing—and food-truck politics are another. Like so many issues in the District, this one involves a new question that’s most energetically supported by comparatively cosmopolitan newcomers: Why can’t our food trucks be as cool as L.A.’s? And it also involves a degree of anxiety on the part of both vested old interests (restaurants employ an estimated 47,000 people in the District) as well as people accustomed to older Washingtonian folkways (those street-vendor half-smokes so frequently disparaged by food truck fans, after all, are a local tradition).

In wading into the issue, the Gray administration risked looking like either the enemy of culinary progress or the foe of established local businesses. A week later, with no major explosions by either side, it appears the mayor’s team has played the politics well. That’s a win, too.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • RT

    There are nearly 100 food trucks. It's already an elite scene

  • Dave B

    This food truck bubble will burst in a couple of years. Its a novelty to feel like you are doing something edgy by buying food off a truck. It used to be adventurous. What does that non descript, dirty, food truck sell? Maybe it is good? I might discover something. Now the scene is all sterilized.

    Food truck palooza or whatever it is... How pointless. Hey, lets go to an empty parking lot, stand in long lines, and eat food off trucks and sit in the baking sun. I will admit I went once and am upset I didnt see how stupid it would be beforehand.

    These stands serve a purpose in third world countries where buildings are in short supply. They dont make sense in an affluent city. The variety is great because someone different might show up outside your office building every day, but eventually you'll have seen it all before and it will stop being cool

  • Shane

    They need to be parked in front of construction sites, which were there original intended purpose.

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  • Eric

    It's pretty clear that Dave B has never actually partaken of the burgeoning dc food truck scene. It's not about "being cool" it's about having a variety of options for lunch in a city dominated by crappy steam-table / deli storefronts and chain restaurants in the office areas. I work at 24th and M and there are exactly zero good options for 2 blocks around my office. Now, thanks to food trucks, I had truffled lasagna for lunch tuesday, kabobs yesterday, and bbq today, from 3 different trucks. It's awesome. And, in case any councilmembers' staff are reading this, I am a DC resident and I vote.

  • Grumpy

    Always some idiot labeling these trucks as 'dirty' when there is no food cart filthier than some hot dog carts.

    These truck provide variety and some give a great deal of food per price. I welcome the upgrade from 'soggy dogs'

  • Anon

    What's the reasoning behind food trucks not paying sales tax? That seems ridiculous. I love food trucks, but they should pay their fair share.

    If they can't afford 10%, then they shouldn't be in business. With the lower starup and operations costs over a traditional restaurant, they should be able to afford taxes.

  • Mrs. D

    @Anon, I'm pretty sure the logic was simplification for businesses essentially run out of someone's garage. Ice cream trucks, for example, don't really keep great records. But I *do* think the fee should be higher for someone selling $10-15 entrees, rather than $2 cones and ice cream bars. Also, many of these mobile eateries accept credit cards, using an iPad or iPhone CC processor, so they *do* have the records, and since many food trucks only sell a few items, they can pretty easily figure out how much they sold just by counting out their drawer. I like to see a way for entrepreneurs to get a business off the ground without a lot of paperwork and headaches, so I'm not sold on paying 10% and filing full tax returns, but I do think some middle ground could be reached either in a higher flat fee for savory food trucks (there's clearly already a definition of this in the laws, so this is not a way of sneaking in new regs...see parking rule), or some tax on gross revenue (no detailed records necessary; you aren't screwed if you sell cheap stuff; paperwork consists of just counting the drawer, filing a one-page revenue report, and paying the tax). The latter might be better because it could apply to all mobile vendors, and possibly reduce the fees on small-time ice cream trucks. I don't know the answer, but it doesn't have to be hard and burdensome, while still being more equitable.

  • Anon

    "simplification"? Yea, if you call institution of a flat fee that kept vendors from COMPLETELY ripping off the government, simplification, that would be it.

  • jinushaun

    The 10pm/1am rule is lame. When you're heading out of the bars at 2am EVERYTHING IS CLOSED. I can't tell you how many times I've been out and I'm told that "the kitchen is closed." Midnight is NOT late. So instead, you have everyone hanging out at the same empanada shop because nothing else is opened. Food trucks should be allowed to operate till 4am. In Seattle, food trucks don't even start until 10pm! Instead, that's when they're told shut down in DC.

    The restaurant association needs to realise that food trucks DO NOT COMPETE with restaurants. This is not a zero sum game where I stop eating at restaurants simply because there is a food truck present. Restaurants and food trucks can coexist because they appeal to different needs.

    Eating at a food truck is not about being cool or trendy. IMO, food trucks exist because they allow you to get food you can't [easily] get at a restaurant quickly. Show me a Korean taco restaurant. Or a place that serves real Mexican tacos featuring tongue and radishes, not the crappy Tex-Mex stuff featuring ground beef and cheddar cheese. Or a restaurant that offers grilled cheese sandwiches. Or a cupcake place that doesn't require a $20 round-trip cab ride from my office. That's where food trucks come in, and that's why food trucks don't compete with restaurants.

  • dclioness

    $1500 a year when they're selling $8/serving mac and cheese? tax their asses. social contract, and all that. tired of free/socially irresponsible exchanges between the well-off and their vendors.

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  • Resident

    How would you feel about a food truck parked outside YOUR apartment building at 1 am? I know I do not want a line of drunk people fresh from the club loitering around and creating additional noise, trash, and traffic on top of valet lines, limited parking, etc. And the food trucks dont pay taxes and certainly do not pay fees to the neighborhood BID that has to clean up all the trash.

  • Mrs. D

    I'd be pretty annoyed, resident, which is why I chose to live a good distance away from bars, restaurants, and business districts. I'm going to assume that you're not both blind and deaf (and if you are, your noise complaint is moot) and could either see or hear what your neighborhood was like before deciding to move there? Oh sure, no food trucks then, but you seem intent on bitching about everything that comes with living in a nightlife hotspot. Solution? Don't live in a nightlife hotspot.

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