Mobilizing: How D.C.’s Food Trucks Learned to Love Lobbying
It’s Farragut Friday, and a dozen food trucks are buzzingwith office workers on their lunch breaks.
But instead of feeding customers, TaKorean’s Mike Lenard and DC Slice’s Tom MacDonald stand in the middle of Farragut Square in their red “Truck Yeah!” T-shirts with a folder full of press releases and measuring tape.
“There’s no guarantee that there would be food trucks here,” says Lenard of regulations that Mayor Vince Gray’s administration proposed last month.
Those rules could restrict trucks from vending in areas with fewer than 10 feet of “unobstructed” sidewalk. Counting lamp poles and tree boxes as obstructions, eight of D.C.’s ten most popular food truck locations would be off-limits. The city has said it would make exceptions for areas like Farragut Square by creating “Mobile Roadway Vending” zones with designated spots for food trucks, but operators say it’s unclear how they will choose those locations, how many spots will be available, and which trucks will get them.
So MacDonald and Lenard, both board members of the D.C. Food Truck Association, were trying to spread their message Friday by making themselves available to passerby and TV news reporters. The measuring tape? That’s a prop, to measure the sidewalks for camera crews.
The on-the-street effort is just part of their campaign. Food trucks are growing more savvy and sophisticated in their approach to regulatory threats. Over the last two years, the truck group has transformed from a handful of operators who met on Mondays in the back of Duffy’s Irish Pub into a 501(c)(6) trade association with more than 50 dues-paying members and a registered lobbyist. Next year, the organization will hire a full-time executive director and officially rebrand itself as the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington, tackling mobile vending issues both within and beyond the District proper.
New regulations for the burgeoning industry have forced the food truck association to grow up fast. In order to have a voice among larger, more established, and better-funded groups, it needed to be organized. Now, the group may not be the biggest player in town, but it’s gaining attention. The question remains: Will it make a difference in the latest round of rulemaking?
It helps that food trucks have grown in sheer numbers. Today, there are more than 125 food trucks on the road in the Washington area. Four years ago, it was pretty much just Fojol Brothers. “When I went out there inauguration day in 2009, it was daunting a little bit to figure out how my concept would fit into the regulatory framework,” says Fojol Brothers co-founder Justin Vitarello. The District’s mobile vending rules, focused on ice cream trucks and hot dog carts, hadn’t been updated in nearly 40 years.
So in 2009, the D.C. Council set up a vending task force, made up primarily of business improvement district members and restauranteurs, to look at mobile vending. On the Fly, which has since shuttered, was the only food truck represented. When Vitarello saw this, he inserted himself in the meetings, though he was not a voting member. He didn’t think the needs and vision of the mobile dining industry were being adequately represented, but his perspective was not exactly welcome. “I was urged not to join,” he says. “They said, ‘You’re going to have no friends there.’” Making his voice heard was even harder because meetings were held at noon, which meant Vitarello couldn’t go out on the truck when the group met.
Meanwhile, a handful of vendors began holding their own meetings in coffee shops and bars. But it wasn’t until the threat of a moratorium in December 2010 that they began to get serious about the need to formalize the group.
Vitarello says he was at Fojol’s kitchen facility when he got a call saying that the D.C. Council was about to consider emergency legislation to put a moratorium on new food trucks, pushed by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, and the Apartment and Office Building Association. He and a group of fellow operators dropped everything, rushed to the Wilson Building, and knocked on doors demanding to meet with someone in every councilmember’s office. They were ultimately able to stop the moratorium from moving forward.
“That was the first time we started to put a face on who the food truck community was,” says Curbside Cupcakes co-founder Kristi Whitfield, DCFTA’s first executive director. “We incorporated as an association out of fear...We realized that these very powerful lobbying establishments were out there having a conversation about our businesses, and we were not really at the table.”
When the D.C. Food Truck Association officially incorporated in March 2011, it had 17 members. The group hired its first lobbyist that summer after several people, including some in the Wilson Building, strongly encouraged it. “They said to us off the record, ‘Nobody is going to take you seriously if you don’t have a lobbyist,’” Whitfield says. Members say being represented officially has helped the group build relationships and get meetings it wasn’t able to previously, though volunteers still do most of the work. The 50 members split the $3,000-a-month bill for their current lobbyist, Kevin Wrege of Pulse Issues & Advocacy, on top of their annual $200 membership fees.
This past August came another big play: The association revised its bylaws to give itself the ability to hire a paid executive director and extend membership to trucks in the whole D.C. metro area. Now, the association is also close to making an arrangement with an insurance carrier, which would give all its members discounts on auto insurance.
It’s trying to integrate itself into the business community, too. The association recently joined the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the very organization that supported a moratorium on food trucks two years ago. How will the Chamber weigh in on trucks, now that both DCFTA and RAMW are members? “We’ll do our best to advocate for the interests of all our members,” says Chamber spokesman Max Farrow. “In the instance that some of our members have differing views, I expect we’ll have to review the issues on a case-by-case basis.” Unlike the last round of food truck regulations, the Chamber didn’t submit any comments on the new proposal.
But the industry’s strength is still its on-the-ground (and in-the-Twittersphere) nature. Members of the food truck association have more than 200,000 Twitter followers combined, so they can send out messages about public policy just as easily as what’s for lunch. “We’ve built businesses through social media,” says former Eat Wonky operator Jeff Kelley, who now runs a food truck consulting and event firm called Wonky Ventures. “If we needed to get the word out about something that impacts our business, that’s how we did it, and that’s still how we do it.”
Che Ruddell-Tabisola, co-owner of BBQ Bus, has been the group’s volunteer executive director since January. When I meet him for a recent dinner at Kangaroo Boxing Club, the brick-and-mortar counterpart of the PORC food truck (a DCFTA member), he comes prepared with stats on the number of jobs created by food trucks (250 from the association’s 50 members) and the number of people served from a single parking space during any given lunch (about 100) as well as a stack of pamphlets and press releases.
He’s been up since 3 a.m., the time he wakes up every day to do a few hours of food truck business before hitting the gym and heading to his day job at Freedom to Marry, where he advocates for LGBT rights. Over the summer, Ruddell-Tabisola spent his lunch hours lobbying, and in recent weeks has used his midday break to distribute stickers that say “Tell Mayor Gray: We Need Food Truck Rules That Work!” for trucks to put on food containers and bags. When he comes home from work, he works on catering proposals for BBQ Bus, operated by his husband Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola, and holds conference calls with DCFTA board members.
Che Ruddell-Tabisola believes the organization is starting to get a little more recognition. For example, the District Department of Transportation held a meeting on Oct. 15 to explain its new proposed regulations to food truck vendors. “We don’t like their answers, but we had the conversation at least,” he says. “In 2010, that wouldn’t have even happened.”
Despite its growth, the food truck association is still the little guy. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, for example, has more than 700 members compared to DCFTA’s 50. It also has far more money and a longer history of ties to local legislators and regulators.
RAMW’s outgoing president Lynne Breaux butted heads with food trucks on a number of issues, but says she supports DCFTA’s organizing efforts in the past couple years: “I think that’s good. Associations are about banding people together and becoming one voice representing a particular industry.” Asked whether the truckers have become more of a force, Breaux says, “I’ll repeat what I just said: Associations are very good for people to band together.”
In response to the latest round of proposed regulations, whose comment period ended earlier this week, DCFTA has been hustling to band its supporters together. The group created a website called RulesThatWork.org for people to submit public comments directly to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In the past, they’ve gotten more than 3,500 supportive comments in response to regulations.
“We don’t have the money or membership to go to the next level of campaigning... We don’t have a paid marketing committee,” Whitfield says. “Our ability to get a seat at the table has increased, but not because of who we are, but because our followers are so steadfast. Curbside Cupcakes is just one truck. BBQ Bus is just one truck. But there are a lot of people who like food trucks.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery