They’re on a Boat: D.C.’s Latest Mobile Food Vendors Are Going Nautical
I want to order some ice cream, but I’m drifting away with the current. “WHAT FLAVORS DO YOU HAVE?” I shout over the lawn mower–like hum of the generator aboard Nauti Foods, the Potomac River’s new food purveyor. I clumsily paddle forward, then backward, before the cheery, sun-tanned crew points out a rope I can cling to as I exchange $4 for a Dolcezza blackberries and cream push-pop. Sitting in a kayak just upstream from the Key Bridge is absolutely the most ridiculous way I’ve ever ordered an artisanal gelato.
The 24-foot pontoon boat has all kinds of other snacks, too: ice cream sandwiches, popsicles, granola bars, chips, coconut water, sodas, Pellegrino, and hot dogs grilled onboard. Nauti Foods is so trendy it even has New York–style bagels from the much-hyped Bullfrog Bagels pop-up and vegan cookies from Sticky Fingers. A long white board advertises “today’s menu,” but it’s a little bit difficult to read unless you’re right up close. Such are the drawbacks of the paddle-thru.
My cold treat is threatening to melt onto my life jacket, but I can’t beat the setting for a Saturday afternoon snack. I try not to drop my paddle in the water as I dig into my gelato and stuff the Nauti Foods temporary tattoos they handed me into my pocket. When I’m done, I dispose of the plastic push-pop in a white Nauti Foods-branded plastic bag with a carabiner to hook onto my kayak. (That way, no trash will end up in the river.)
Nauti Foods is D.C.’s first-ever food boat, or floating food truck, depending on what you want to call this new breed of mobile eatery. The vendor vessel, which launched last weekend, is captained by couple Ari Fingeroth and Tammar Berger. He owns a small home-remodeling company, and she consults with the World Bank and co-owns U Street NW’s Off Road Indoor Cycling. “We’re doing this as a side thing to entertain us and hopefully fill a void on the river,” Fingeroth explains. The duo plans to hit the water every Friday through Sunday until mid-September. By next summer, they expect other food-slinging ships will follow in their wake.
Fingeroth has been boating on the Potomac since he moved to the area in 1999. Every time he and his friends fired up the grill on his ski boat, heads would start turning, and stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers would start getting closer. Last summer on the boat, Berger really wanted a popsicle. “I said, ‘It’d be really great if there was some kind of snack bar or snack boat where we could just go get popsicle and a cold drink,’” she says. They joked around about it at first, but then realized there might actually be a market for something like that. Both had started businesses in D.C., so they weren’t daunted by the idea of launching something new. “It kind of just snowballed,” Berger says.
The couple had never heard of an operation like theirs, although since news of their venture spread, people have started to tell them about similar boats around the country. But for pioneers of the food boat in D.C., regulatory hurdles were inevitable. “Pretty much everyone I talked to started at ‘no’ or ‘hell no,’” Fingeroth says. “We just kind of chipped away at all the different levels of bureaucracy…Once they actually realized that I was serious, they really came around and were super-helpful giving me guidance on who I needed to talk to and who was next in the process.”
Nauti Foods had to go through a range of government agencies, including the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Department of Health, U.S. Coast Guard, National Park Service, and Metropolitan Police Department. Ultimately, the business was “shoehorned” into different existing permits, Fingeroth says. DCRA, for example, issued the boat a mobile delicatessen license. “Just figuring out what to label us was probably the hardest part,” Berger says.
The permits only allow Nauti Foods to sell boat-to-boat in the middle of the river, so you won’t see them setting up shop from the docks. The food boat takes cash and credit cards, and the owners are looking into some kind of app-based payment system as well.
In their inaugural weekend, Berger says Nauti Foods saw a fairly steady flow of customers, although she didn’t track exactly how many. (They ended up not going out on Sunday because of forecasted thunderstorms, which never showed.) When I went out on Saturday, Nauti Foods was the closest boat anchored to the Boating in DC kayak and paddleboard rental shop next to the Key Bridge, which had a half-hour wait. Motor boats are also welcome to pull up—and a handful did, although the majority of customers were paddlers.
Later in the afternoon, I spot Berger on a paddleboard with a cooler strapped to the front. “What’s in the cooler?” I shout out across the water. Nothing yet, it turns out. Although she made an earlier delivery to a friend’s boat, that’s not routine. She and Fingeroth are still trying to figure out ways that they might be able to get food and drinks to bigger boats that can’t pull up alongside as easily. “I had a lot of people stop me and ask me what was in the cooler and if they could buy something,” she tells me later of her paddleboard run.
But there’s something else that passers-by are even more curious about: “The number one question this weekend was, ‘Do you have beer?’” Berger says. Sadly, that’s the one thing boaters likely won’t be strapping to their carabiners anytime soon. D.C. regulators don’t even allow land-bound food trucks to sell alcohol.
Still, the launch had good timing, given D.C.’s recent and ongoing riverfront redevelopments, including the Georgetown Waterfront, National Harbor, The Wharf in Southwest, and Capitol Riverfront in Southeast. More people are seeing promise in the Potomac now that pollution is down and retail around the riverfront is up. “I don’t think five years ago there would have been a demand for something like this,” Berger says. But now, she’s seeing more people spending time on the river, not to mention a rise in the popularity of stand-up paddleboarding.
While it may be a little late in the summer for other floating vendors to join Nauti Foods, Berger and Fingeroth won’t be surprised to see some competition next year. Fingeroth imagines bigger boats with full kitchens outfitted more like food trucks that could provide hot food preparations. “I think that would be the next jump… larger vessels that are doing custom cooked meals,” he says. As for Nauti Foods, he would like to partner with existing food trucks or restaurants to serve more prepared foods once they settle in.
For now, at least there are popsicles.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery