Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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To participate in May’s Taste of Arlington festival, put on by the Ballston Business Improvement District, food trucks must pay a flat fee of between $400 and $500. Festival attendees purchase tickets worth $5 each that can be redeemed at food trucks for a few bites. When the gates close, event organizers reimburse the food truck between 25 and 75 cents per ticket. Pricing varies depending on when a truck signs up. Would you sign this contract? 

“I couldn’t even comprehend it,” says Kirk Francis. He co-owns the Captain Cookie and the Milkman food truck, as well as the Tastemakers food hall in Brookland. “I assumed the tickets were being sold for a dollar. Even that would be bad, but this is just laughable.” 

In 2017, Taste of Arlington food truck vendors paid a flat fee of $750 and got to keep 100 percent of their revenue. “It was a hefty fee but we felt the combination of revenue and exposure was worth it,” Francis says. He’s not participating in the 2018 event and named three other trucks that also pulled out after trying to negotiate the fee.

Organizers collect money from food trucks at events in three ways. Some charge a flat fee up front, some take a percentage of revenue at the end, and others combine the two into a hybrid model.

“These people are being treated like dogs,” says Matt Geller, the founding president of the National Food Truck Association. “Organizers are essentially saying, ‘You shouldn’t make a profit. We’re doing you a favor.’ It’s insulting and kind of fraudulent.” 

In a February blog post, “The $25 Food Truck Meal,” Geller explains how event fees have shot up nationwide. Organizers now charge up to 40 percent of gross sales, when in the past the event’s take-home was closer to 10 percent. 

Francis and other operators confirm fee hikes are happening in D.C. “There have always been festivals and charges to participate,” he says. Among the first festivals were Curbside Cookoff in 2010 and Truckeroo in 2011. “Where you used to pay $200 to $300 for a day or 5 to 10 percent of your sales, you’re now paying 25 to 40 percent of sales, or an enormous up-front sum.” 

Big Cheese owner Patrick Rathbone and Francis say Truckeroo’s asking price climbed to $500 in 2017. “But it’s one third of the size that it used to be—attendance decreased about 60 percent,” Francis says. “That one has gradually gone downhill,” Rathbone adds. “Last year they raised it to $500, that’s why we dropped out. Part of the problem is you can’t sell drinks.” 

Like restaurants, trucks benefit from selling beverages because the profit margin is much wider. “I got an exception to sell milk with cookies, but otherwise Truckeroo sells all alcoholic or refreshing-type beverages,” Francis says. 

Jeff Kelley, who has booked trucks for Truckeroo since the beginning, declined to comment on fees, only stating that he works with operators one-on-one and has a roster of 150 food trucks itching to get involved.

“We try to make sure that it’s fair and trucks have a great opportunity to earn money and also that we give customers a great variety of trucks,” Kelley says. “Fairness is what drives me. I don’t want to peel back the layers on the onion … angst around pricing doesn’t do any good.”

Smoking Kow BBQ owner Dylan Kough has dialed back his festival involvement. “My first year I got burned by a lot of them, so I’m a lot pickier now,” he says. Kough and others call out Snallygaster and Broccoli City as good opportunities. Drink the District, conversely, is not one of Kough’s favorite organizers. He last participated in a brunch-themed event in 2016. 

“They started realizing that if they invited more vendors, customers would be happier because they wouldn’t have to wait in line,” he says. “But vendors are getting burned. Why am I paying $400 to sell $2,000 worth of food that costs me $700?” He barely breaks even once labor and other costs factor in. “It’s more than a 12-hour day, with at least three staff working overtime on a weekend.” 

The Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle was also a bust. “That was the worst of all time,” Kough says. He says he paid $1,500 for two days and was told there would only be four trucks. “They were right about the four food trucks, but there was a mile of free samples.” Why would attendees pay for barbecue from his truck? Even when organizers deliver on crowd size, other variables can make an event a bad business move.

“You need to become a sleuth and ask very thorough questions,” says DC Slices owner Zack Graybill. He always slashes 25 percent off the crowd size an organizer touts because it behooves them to embellish.

In 2016, DC Slices spent $8,000 on event fees compared to $18,000 in 2017. “I view it as a good thing because our numbers were the same,” Graybill says. “We didn’t see a loss in revenue. We saw a loss in profit for me and the other owners, but we were able to keep things going.” Graybill is currently applying to participate in an event that costs $600 down and 35 percent of revenue for the day. “It’s not great.” 

Inflating participation fees, fibbing about crowd size, and over-saturating an event with competing vendors creates a long-term situation in which festival organizers, food trucks, and the public all lose. 

When fees skyrocket, food trucks are forced to raise their prices to make pulling into an event worthwhile. Others change up their regular menu to serve dishes that are cheaper to produce. Instead of selling gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, for example, Rathbone swaps in a festival-only menu of fried mac and cheese balls and fried cheese curds. 

The customer doesn’t know what’s happening behind the scenes and could assume the food truck they’re used to frequenting got greedy overnight. That’s why Geller is calling for greater transparency.  

“If I have a pet store and I’m charging 40 percent more for a dog, everyone sees what’s happening,” he says. “In this, food trucks are being blamed. The organizers are business-to-business and food trucks are business-to-customer.” 

“Customers don’t see it’s a result of the event charging you,” Francis adds. “They see, Captain Cookie is gouging me at Truckeroo. You get negative reviews. It’s not something I enjoy doing at all.” 

That’s not to say incremental increases aren’t to be expected. Matt Hussmann from the Clarendon Alliance, which puts on a number of festivals, explains that permit and police fees are on the rise. “The level of security is up, everybody is aware of it,” he says. “There are more staff than there used to be.”

A rep from the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation says getting a special event permit is free, but there are charges to use county services such as trash pick-up and policing if there are road closures. Serving alcohol can also incur fees. 

But as more trucks become disillusioned, the overall experience will suffer. “Quality is going to drop if the best in the game don’t want to deal with you anymore,” Geller says. “Food trucks are like any business, they get better with time.” Rookies may not be able to maintain consistency throughout the fast-paced service that festivals demand, Geller theorizes.

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” Francis says. “There are food trucks launching all of the time with new operators because you can start up with less capital and experience [than a restaurant]. The caveat is you get more naive operators who are swayed by promises of great exposure.” 

Exposure is precisely how some organizers explain their pricing strategies. Kelley of Truckeroo suggests that many festival-goers are test-driving food trucks for potential catering gigs like weddings. “Those opportunities have been generated at the event for many years,” he says. 

Tyler Roper is the events coordinator for the Ballston BID. He says he’s booked eight food trucks for 2018’s Taste of Arlington so far. “We’ve had a lot of recurring trucks here last year and the year before,” he says. “It gets their brand out there to the public.” 

Roper holds Timber Pizza Co. up as a success story. They signed up to serve pizza again this year. Roper argues that through participating in Taste of Arlington and similar events, they were able to get enough exposure to open a brick and mortar restaurant.

“It certainly did not launch our brick and mortar,” says Timber co-owner Andrew Dana. “If anything, the farmers markets were way more valuable.” He adds that he wouldn’t be able to make 25 cents on $5 if he didn’t have a restaurant to lean on.

Roper says attendees don’t think twice about paying $5 for a ticket that they redeem for a snack because the event is for charity. It benefits The Arlington Arts Center, Animal Welfare League of Arlington, Arlington Food Assistance Center, and other organizations. He wants food truck operators to embrace the giving spirit.

“Taste of Arlington is a fantastic way to market their food truck and show that they support charities,” he says. “Knowing that contribution to the event is going to help feed a family, help dogs that need a meal.” 

Francis says it shouldn’t be on the food trucks to “contribute” by operating at a loss. “If organizers are running an event, it should be profitable and they should donate those proceeds,” he says. “Most of us already have robust charitable programs. We donate tens of thousands a year to D.C. causes like the Capital Area Food Bank and DC Central Kitchen.” 

Captain Cookie puts on its own charitable event called Truck & Toss. Participating food trucks get paid a minimum of $1,000 for a set number of tastings. 

With the 2018 festival season in view, trucks will have to decide which events to sit out. Since food trucks are not as trendy as they were when they first came on the scene, many can’t stay in the black on their roving lunch business alone. Many D.C. food trucks report a 30 to 50 percent decline in business throughout 2017.

Geller suggests food trucks fight back by demanding fairness. In Los Angeles, where he’s based, there was an event that wanted 38 percent of revenue. A few food trucks led the charge to demand a smaller fee, and were told their invitation to participate was revoked. The event was being put on by the city and a councilmember’s name was listed on the event website. 

“I called and asked why a councilman would attach himself to an event that charged such a high price to Los Angeles small business owners,” Geller says. “We also let them know we would tell all of our followers why food prices were going to be so high.” Organizers responded by reducing the fee and re-inviting the banished trucks. 

Geller says he’s working on a review platform where operators can rate organizers and events. It will launch in Southern California before going nationwide. “My job is to provide really good information, but also hold organizers accountable to the point where customers know what the hell is going on.” He encourages people to tweet organizers and ask how much they’re taking from food trucks. “That’s the only thing that’s going to do it.” 

Francis isn’t optimistic that everyday citizens will turn up the heat, so he hopes organizers will consider the long game and ask themselves which trucks they want down the road.

“The association hasn’t banded together to blackball events,” Francis says. “Hopefully it won’t come to that. But food trucks have organized before when there’s been a need to do so.” 

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