Young and Hungry

On Food Truck Lottery’s First Day, Mobile Vendors Feeling Lukewarm

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Rebecca Azebmesfin was wearing her warmest and most welcoming smile as she peered out from her food truck, Rebecca Ethiopian Cuisine, earlier today in Franklin Square. It was her her first day operating on the corner of 14th and K—and the first day of D.C.'s new food truck lottery system, which regulates where mobile vendors can do business each weekday—and she was nervous about attracting new customers.

"It's an adventure for me, to come to this area," Azebmesfin said, still smiling.

The D.C. Council passed the new rules in June following a heated, years-long debate that pitted food truck operators against brick-and-mortar restaurants, groups that compete against each other for lunchtime diners each weekday. Under the new regulations, truck owners must enter a monthly lottery in order to operate in one of 12 "mobile roadway vending locations" for each day of the week. And although the new rules are only slightly less complicated than particle physics, a handful of food truck operators in Franklin Square expressed cautious optimistism about the changes.

"In the food truck industry, everything can change extremely rapidly," said TaKorean manager Elizabeth Cramer. "But so far it's going pretty smoothly."

The plus side? Trucks are guaranteed a parking space—"When we showed up we had a parking spot waiting for us, and in Franklin Park without a spotter, that's a miracle," Cramer said—and the new system removes some of the uncertainty of finding a location to vend.

But other aspects of the regulations have left food truck owners feeling wary. Many trucks didn't win licenses for every day of the week, meaning that on days in which they aren't assigned to a mobile roadway vending location, they'll have to scope out spots at least 200 feet from the zones before they can sell. (They'll also need to find spots with six feet of sidewalk clearance.)

"I don't know what I'm going to do on that day," said Azebmesfin, who doesn't have a license for Fridays in December. "I could go other places, but the customers won't know me, so it might not be worth it."

The lottery system also forces trucks to operate in places they don't normally go, and not all vending spots are created equal. Business may have been booming in Franklin Square, but D.C. Quesadilla and Wraps owner Bassem Moussa said he's apprehensive that the lottery could send him to a location with a lighter lunch crowd, like Navy Yard, in the future.

Meanwhile, Azebmesfin worried that her regular customers in Metro Center won't bother trying to find her in her newly assigned locations. Alberto Dominguez, who gets lunch from Franklin Square food trucks at least once a week, said he doubts he'll walk to other locations to track down his old favorites. "I wouldn't travel further, I'll just try something new," he says.

To other customers, the lottery system smacks of over-regulation. "It's a ridiculous system," said Dave Doctor, another Franklin Square regular. "I just don't get why it's necessary. Maybe they think it'll help the food trucks that aren't doing so well, but if they can't make it, maybe they just don't have good food."

But Cramer said she appreciates the increased oversight—within limits.

"We're glad to see the D.C. government getting involved," she said. "My only hesitation is that...food trucks came about because it's a great idea to take good food where people want it. So when you restrict that, you're restricting business potential."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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