Curbed: Could New Regulations Kill D.C.’s Food Truck Culture?
For the past few months, Basil Thyme owner Brian Farrell had been trying to decide what to do with his lasagna and pasta food trucks. Despite having the highest-rated D.C. trucks on Yelp, he was barely making money, especially in the winter.
Then, two weeks ago, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs released the latest round of proposed food truck regulations. The rules would create special zones throughout the city that would limit how many trucks could vend where. A monthly lottery system would determine who gets the spots. Those who didn’t win or want a place in the so-called “mobile roadway vending zones” would have to stay at least 500 feet away in metered parking spots with at least ten feet of unobstructed sidewalk. That could push many out of the central business district.
Farrell didn’t want to stick around to be a guinea pig for the potential new regulations. “It’s not incubating. It’s suffocating,” he says. Between that and his struggling business, he has decided to sell both trucks in the next month or two.
If the D.C. Council passes the regulations as they are now written, Basil Thyme may not be the only food truck putting the brakes on business. Several food truck owners say they are considering shutting down or moving their operations to Virginia, Maryland, or other states if the regulations prove too limiting.
A lot will depend on details that are still unknown. The proposed regulations lay out 23 potential mobile vending zones—from Union Station to Farragut Square to Friendship Heights—that would each contain at least three parking spots. But they don’t specify how many total spots there will be or their exact street locations. DCRA, which regulates the food trucks, will work with the District Department of Transportation to make those decisions only if and when the regulations are approved by the D.C. Council. The rules are open for public comment until April 8, but food truck operators say they’re concerned that zones could potentially be added or changed in the future without their input.
Even though specifics remain unclear, many food truck operators expect that new rules would drive a lot of trucks out of the central business district and the most popular (and profitable) vending neighborhoods.
“These regulations will kill the food truck industry in the city as we know it,” says Curbside Cupcakes co-owner Kristi Whitfield. “It will be smaller. It will be dispersed out to lord knows where.”
Whitfield and many other food truck operators aren’t keen on running their businesses in a game of chance. Under the proposed lottery system, mobile vendors would vie to occupy locations for each weekday throughout the month. They would pay $150 a month (in addition to $25 lottery entry fees) for the spots, where they could park from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
D.C. Food Truck Association chairman and Red Hook Lobster Pound co-owner Doug Povich says trucks could end up winning proposed locations with little weekday lunch traffic like Navy Yard, Historic Anacostia, Minnesota or Benning avenues NE, and Friendship Heights. Because they’ve spent $150 for the spot, they’ll likely go the first time. But if they’re losing money there, they may not want to come back the following weeks, Povich says. The result would be empty parking spots that nobody else could use for four hours.
Povich believes only five areas—Farragut Square, L’Enfant Plaza, Franklin Square, Metro Center, and Union Station—have enough traffic and congestion to warrant a zone, not 23. He says his trucks do half the business in a lower-traffic location like Friendship Heights or Navy Yard as they do downtown. Trucks that don’t have Red Hook’s 25,000 Twitter followers might do as little as 5 to 10 percent, Povich estimates.
Restricting vehicles to certain spots goes against the mobile spirit of food trucks, Whitfield says. When she has cupcakes left at the end of the day, she asks her Twitter followers where Cubside Cupcakes should go next. “That’s dead,” Whitfield says. “Responding to customer requests is dead if these regulations go through.”
And then there’s the possibility that food trucks may not get a spot in a mobile vending zone at all. In that case, finding a location to vend in the central business district could be tough. Last fall, the D.C. Food Truck Association measured sidewalks throughout the area and found that eight of the 10 most popular vending locations had fewer than 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk, which would make them off-limits under the proposed rules.
Instead, mobile vendors might try their luck in less dense parts of the city that don’t get a lot of food truck traffic now. Fojol Brothers co-owner Justin Vitarello says the zones could be good if they help turn underserved neighborhoods into food truck destinations. But to do that, Vitarello says there needs to be clear signage promoting the locations and a critical mass of trucks (ideally about five) that show up on a consistent basis. “If I get a location that’s in a certain area that’s not proven yet, Fojol Brothers will always show up, but we also want other people to show up and take that risk,” Vitarello says.
Unfortunately, that’s not a risk everyone wants to take. Building up a customer base in a new neighborhood takes time, and many lose money in the process. Povich says trucks need the ability to vend in high-demand areas in order to subsidize visits to less dense areas.
The food truck association already encourages its members to visit underserved areas, but it doesn’t always make business sense, especially at first. “When we try to do things down in ward 7 or 8 where there aren’t many food options, nine times out of 10 we’re going to lose money,” Povich says. Even though there’s not a lot of competition there, Povich explains that it takes a while for people to realize the trucks are there on any sort of regular basis. Many who work in the area have gotten used to relying on packed lunches, he says.
If the regulations pass as they’re drafted, Povich says he’d likely focus his business in Virginia, whose regulations are more friendly to food trucks. About eight months ago, he began sending at least one of his two trucks to Virginia or Maryland each day because of the hassle of parking enforcement in D.C. “If you were at a parking meter location for literally two hours and one second, you were getting a ticket. Even if you were pulling out of the parking space,” Povich says.
Cirque Cuisine co-owner Sean Swartz says he would try to work under the parameters of the new regulations, but “if it really starts to hamper our business, we’re going to leave.” And by leave, he means flee the region, probably to Philadelphia. “I’m a D.C. native, and I’ve spent my whole life here, and it kind of sucks that D.C. is pushing out small businesses like this,” Swartz says.
Others may just head straight to eBay. When asked what she would do if these regulations pass, Cubside Cupcakes’ Whitfield takes a long pause. “I don’t know,” she says. “Honestly, probably shut it down.”
PORC food truck co-owner Josh Saltzman, who also operates Kangaroo Boxing Club in Columbia Heights, doesn’t hesitate at all: “I’ll have to shut it down. The point of opening up any business is to make money. And with these rules, we can’t sustain business.”
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vince Gray, says he thinks the threats of shutting down or moving away are “hyperbole.” He says the last thing officials want is for food trucks to go out of business. “We don’t think it’s going to be quite as limiting as the trucks seem to think it is,” he says. The current system is antiquated, Ribeiro says, and the proposed rules are meant to balance the interests of everyone—from food trucks to restaurants to bikers to commuters and more.
Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger says the proposed regulations are a step in the right direction. She’s in favor of the mobile vending zones, although she would also like to see more specifics on the number of spots and their locations. The restaurant association has repeatedly butted heads with food trucks over regulations, claiming that the overconcentration of trucks causes disruption to public space and that they aren’t held accountable to the same standards as brick and mortar businesses.
Meanwhile, Ribeiro says the city is looking to find more opportunities for food trucks. He points to the St. Elizabeths campus near Congress Heights in Ward 8, which will be home to the Coast Guard and eventually the Department of Homeland Security. The cafeteria there only has seating for 260 of the 4,400 people set to move in later this year, so the city is planning to set aside 10 spaces for food trucks.
“They’re fixated on the downtown core, when there are plenty of places in the District that are really ripe for business,” Ribeiro says.
The proposed regulations would also open up 76 spots around the Mall and the Ellipse, which are currently the turf of souvenir, ice cream, and hot dog vendors. Food trucks would enter a lottery for the spots, which would cost $450 a month—three times the amount needed to secure a place in a mobile roadway vending zone. The Mall locations would, however, have longer hours than the other zones.
But not all food truck operators are interested in a Constitution Avenue parking spot, especially for $450. “Are there tourist dollars to be earned on the Mall? Yes. But is that the customer base that we built our businesses on and want to continue to serve? No,” says Whitfield. “You’re offering me something I didn’t ask for and taking away something I need to survive.”
Fojol Brothers’ owners aren’t waiting for the District to try to create more opportunities for food trucks; they’ve got a plan of their own. They’ve purchased two ’50s-era buses to convert into mobile dining cars which they call “Elastic Hallways.” The buses will park on private lots around the city to provide sit-down seating for food truck kitchens. Vitarello also envisions using the buses for art shows, community events, and other projects that would help activate empty spaces. They’re hoping to raise money to retrofit the buses on Kickstarter.
Vitarello says the idea for the Elastic Hallways was born amid the uncertainty of new regulations. “We’ve got a good possibility to protect ourselves if things become very difficult,” he says.
Farrell is less optimistic about what’s in store for his food truck brethren if the proposed regulations go into effect. “Food trucking as it is, even for one of the highest-rated trucks, is an uphill battle,” he says. “With these regs on top, it’s exponential.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery