Young and Hungry

The Truck Stops Here: The Food Scene Feels the Squeeze of the Government Shutdown

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In the shadow of the Department of Transportation, the intersection of 7th and C streets SW should be packed with food trucks and people on a sunny 80-degree Friday. But instead of the usual 18 trucks, there are just 11. And although lines start to form at noon, they’re shorter than normal.

Many food trucks are avoiding this lunchtime hotspot at all costs, thanks to the government shutdown, which started earlier last week. But Stix owners Jane Lyons and Leah Perez took a chance anyway last Friday. After all, this is where their regulars are. “We figured we’re one of the most popular trucks here,” Lyons says, “So even if we got half of our business that we normally get, it will be better than Wednesday.”

On Wednesday, they ventured to Franklin Square, surrounded by law offices and lobbying firms rather than empty buildings left vacant by nonessential workers. Eighteen other trucks, more than average, were also there. “We had a horrible day,” Perez says. Stix had only about a quarter of the 115 to 120 customers it might usually serve in a day. So Friday, they were back by L’Enfant Plaza, but with a slimmed-down menu and no prep cooks, because they weren’t able to pay them with their lower revenue. “We usually have somebody else in the truck with us because we can’t do it by ourselves,” Perez says, leaning out the window. “But we had to tell those people to take a break.”

Plenty of food businesses and restaurants are feeling the shutdown’s effects, and some food trucks, which have particularly strong relationships with federal-worker-dense intersections, are struggling to break even. After all, some of the most popular vending locations are government-centric: L’Enfant, Navy Yard, Federal Triangle, and NoMa. Like Stix, several truck owners have been forced to cut back on staff and supplies after seeing huge swaths of their customer base sent home from work. Others are cutting operations altogether: PORC food truck, for example, decided to call it quits for the duration of the shutdown after losing money last Tuesday at Franklin Square, where business was down by half.

“The point of any business is to make money,” says PORC co-owner Josh Saltzman, who’s also a partner in Kangaroo Boxing Club. “If you’re approaching your break-even or dipping below it, it’s not worth sending the truck out and working your ass off not to make money.”

Back in L’Enfant, a few yards from Stix, 71-year-old hot dog cart vendor Hoa Griffin smokes a cigarette from the passenger seat of a blue minivan under a checkered red and white blanket that drapes from her cart to her car. She says she’s been at this spot for 20 years. “Slow, very slow,” says Griffin, a Vietnamese immigrant. “No make no money.” The day before, her cart had no more than 10 customers. She’s not too worried about herself; her children are grown and she hopes to retire soon anyway. “Some people have a family,” she says. “I worry about them.”

Among those with families is Sweetbites owner Sandra Panetta. The single mom from McLean with two teenage kids says she’s already been struggling to feed her family and pay her mortgage while operating a food truck full-time. Nearly every Wednesday for the last three years, she’s sold cupcakes and cookies at L’Enfant Plaza. But last week, she opted for Franklin Square and made a profit of no more than $100. She was just glad not to get a parking ticket, as she frequently does. “I would have made nothing,” she says.

Fearing more losses, she took the truck off the road last Thursday and decided to use the time for a safety inspection. “I was shaking because I just didn’t know what I would do if it needed repairs,” she says. “And of course, it always does.” The mechanic pointed out a broken mirror and worn tires. “I said, ‘Look, I have $600 to my name and I need that truck.” They were able to work out a deal to fix just the essentials. “So now I’m penniless,” she says, laughing. “But I have my truck.”

Restaurants and farmers markets are also starting to feel the pinch. While many restaurants saw an initial bump from furloughed workers in need of a drink—especially with food and drink deals all over town—things are starting to taper off.

“As we go on, there’s more anxiety and there’s more uncertainty,” says Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington president Kathy Hollinger. She’s heard from some of her members that dinner is lighter than usual and some large groups and private parties are starting to cancel reservations. “At the end of the day, people have a closer clutch on their purse and their wallet...They’re going to be making choices that are real life choices, and many of those choices end up being not spending money in restaurants.”

Old Ebbitt Grill and The Hamilton Managing Director David Moran has been noticing shorter waits and a generally quieter vibe during a time of year that restaurants would typically be packed. “It’s clearly put a hitch in our giddyup,” he says. Sales are “off a little bit”—maybe 10 percent—says Moran, and two of the 25 large private events scheduled for the first three weeks since the shutdown started have been canceled by groups that are no longer coming to D.C.

Moran also worked for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns Old Ebbitt and The Hamilton, during the last shutdown. “This first three to seven days, everyone’s still in a pretty good mood right now,” he says. “When it got into the second week, it became not so funny and dire pretty quickly.”

How the shutdown is affecting the food world, though, varies by location. Matchbox, for example, saw an uptick in business in its Merrifield and Rockville outposts, particularly during lunch, with more people who usually commute downtown from the suburbs staying close to home. VP of Operations Fred Herrmann says the chain’s D.C. restaurants were unaffected. “Everyone is in wait-and-see mode,” he says.

Meanwhile, FRESHFARM Markets’ Maddy Beckwith says while there wasn’t less foot traffic, sales were down at the Thursday White House and Penn Quarter markets. Beckwith says there seemed to be a lot of tourists looking for something to do in place of museums, but fewer regular shoppers. Some chefs who also make regular stops to the White House market for their menus were also buying less, Beckwith says, presumably because their business was likewise down.

Whisked! owner Jenna Huntsberger, who sells pies and other baked goods at the 14th and U streets NW, Glover Park, Bloomingdale, and District Flea markets on weekends, says her sales were down about 30 percent across the markets. She’s already preparing less food for next weekend. “It’s disheartening because this is my busiest season,” Huntsberger says. “This is when I should be selling the most product.”

Huntsberger gets where her customers are coming from: “I would do the same thing if I was in a situation where I wasn’t receiving a paycheck. I would cutback on the luxuries that I allow myself. I wouldn’t go out to dinner, or I’d get a drip coffee instead of a latte,” she says.

“It just sucks.”

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

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Sarah

    Just a thought, food trucks should consider working out something with American University! I'm an alum of the law school, and I remember it totally sucking because it's a restaurant desert up on Mass Ave. You've got a huge captive audience with the undergrads and the law students, not affected at all by the shutdown. I bet the law school would be really on board with it, they arrange student work/life balance stuff all the time.

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  • Sarah G

    Do you have any idea why Indigo Landing restaurant can't operate during a government shutdown? Seems like there must be an interesting reason, but I can't figure it out...

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