Darrow Montgomery

When food trucks first came on the scene, they were D.C.’s plaything. The mobile eateries were novel enough to draw long lines, intriguing enough to woo journalists, and diverse enough to leave customers scratching their heads over all of the choices. That was 2010. This is 2017, and the spotlight has shifted to pop-ups and delivery apps that can bring food as decadent as steak dinner for two to your door.

Now a mature industry, there are at least 200 food trucks in D.C., and many are reporting a decline in business of up to about 50 percent. Increased competition from other food trucks combined with a booming restaurant industry that has attracted national attention means food trucks have to innovate and evolve to thrive, or even to stay alive.

“The novelty of the food truck has worn off,” says Anna Bran-Leis. Her food truck DC Empanadas was one of the first to hit the pavement in the city back in 2010. “It’s a part of the D.C. lunch scene. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing exciting anymore.” She hypothesizes that tourists on the National Mall are among the few who still approach food trucks with curiosity. “Maybe in Middle America you don’t see them like we do—they’re like, ‘Oh my god, a food truck like on Food Network!’”

Kirk Francis co-owns the Captain Cookie & the Milk Man food trucks, which first debuted in 2012. “Quite candidly, sales for us and most food trucks I know are down 30 to 50 percent.” He attributes some of the losses to the cyclical nature of food trends. “They tend to last about five years,” he says, pointing to cupcakes as an example. Businesses specializing in the confection have failed in dramatic fashion lately with chains like Crumbs Bake Shop closing all of their stores nationwide. “Only the strong survived [locally] like Georgetown Cupcake and Baked & Wired.”

Back in 2012, Francis says, food trucks were massively trendy. “It was a wonderful environment to launch a business five or six years ago. We were well received and got good press. A lot of people who had good cooking skills and a good ideas that didn’t have the capital to launch a half-million-dollar restaurant were able to spend $50,000 instead and launch a food truck.” He doesn’t think food trucks are going away; they’re just part of the overall landscape of D.C. now. “We’re no longer the new kid on the block or the shiny thing.”

Another food truck that launched in 2012 also puts losses in the 30 percent range. “I noticed it last year,” says Robert Miller of his meatball truck Ball or Nothing. He says business hit a high point in 2015, then suffered 30 percent losses in both 2016 and 2017. That’s on top of the typical 30 to 50 percent losses food trucks that stay open year-round often suffer during winter months. But Miller doesn’t think the downward trend is unique to food trucks.

Miller chatted up the vendors that sell him vegetables for the side dishes his Ball or Nothing truck offers. These vendors also sell to restaurants and tell Miller orders are down 30 percent there too. “Your purveyors are the canaries in the coal mine,” he jokes. Miller has spent time considering why numbers are free-falling. “Is it Trump coming into office?” he asks. “I’ve heard people saying there’s a chilling effect.”

Bran-Leis believes the decline began in 2013 and attributes some of the blame to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ food truck lottery system launched in December of 2013 as a part of the sweeping food truck regulations the D.C. Council passed the same year that created this complex list of regulations. Food trucks pay $25 a month to enter the lottery and an additional $150 a month if they choose to use the locations they are assigned. By entering, food trucks hope to land the right to park in prominent locations like Farragut or Franklin squares. (Take a look at this month’s results.) 

“It used to be first come, first served,” Bran-Leis explains. “You’d go to locations and make your schedule based on where you wanted to work that week.” The lottery takes a bit more planning and there are only so many fruitful spots. Bran-Leis says if you forget to sign-up, you lose a week of prime vending opportunities.

Sandra Basanti from the Dangerously Delicious Pies food truck also fondly recalls a time when food trucks controlled their own destiny. “We could go wherever, park wherever, and you just factored in the cost of a daily parking ticket of $25 into your operations,” she says. “Now with the lottery spots, there is less opportunity.” She continues to explain that when one or both of her two trucks land lottery spots, it’s guaranteed to be a much more lucrative day.

A spokesperson from DCRA explains that trucks can operate outside the lottery. “If you don’t want to participate, you’re not prohibited from vending elsewhere in D.C.,” says Matt Orlins. “The spots may not be available, but this isn’t the only option you have if you want to be a food truck business.”

The food truck lottery may not be the root cause of the decline in food truck revenue. It’s a system the city created in response to the dramatic increase in food trucks. The issue instead is the increased competition.

Some food truck owners are quick to talk about a dichotomy of sorts that’s developing within the world of D.C. food trucks.

“At the beginning you had all these interesting concepts and people passionate about food,” Bran-Leis says. “Then all of the hot dog vendors and taxi drivers got into it. These are people who are not food people—they just want to make a quick buck.” She continues, “These other guys came along and put as many trucks as they could on the road selling chicken wings, steaks, and kebabs.”

Six Tasty Kabob and Gyro Inc trucks entered the December 2017 lottery, for example. Francis points to the proliferation of steak & cheese trucks that seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom. “A bunch of food trucks have not brought a lot of creativity or passion to the food truck scene,” he says. “Those trucks can slash prices and compete against each other, seeing who can be the most budget-friendly food truck out there. There’s less attention to the quality of the food and that taints people’s perception of food trucks.” 

If you went to Franklin Square five years ago during lunch, 12 out of 15 trucks would be “great” and “chef-driven” such as Cap Mac, TaKorean, and Dangerously Delicious Pies, according to Francis. Only three would be what he calls “budget trucks.” Now it’s the reverse.

The landscape has no doubt changed since 2012 when the DMV Food Truck Association, then lead by Che Ruddell-Tabisola, fought for regulations that would be fair to food trucks. Food truck operators say they’re grateful the association made sure food trucks had a seat at the negotiating table. Few sources today, however, can point to how the association applies food trucks’ $600 annual membership fees. New chairman of the board and executive director Sam Whitfield has an answer.

Whitfield and his wife used to run the Curbside Cupcakes food truck, which is no longer in operation today. “From the beginning we were like, ‘This is a great idea, let’s get out there,’” he says. “But within the first three months we realized the volume we were doing may be unsustainable.” Immediately they figured out how to bring in additional streams of revenue through catering, events, and deliveries. “Most food trucks are just realizing that we have to do these extra things.”

That’s partially where the association comes in, according to Whitfield. He says the organization offers educational workshops for members that teach them different ways to grow their businesses, among other benefits. As with all industries, the squeeze of increased competition is a disruptive force that generates change. Food trucks are learning to survive by adding one or more ancillary ways to make money to make ends meet.

“There is just no way that there is enough business out there for you to just have your food truck and keep going,” Bran-Leis says. “You have to have other things.” For Bran-Leis that’s a DC Empanadas stall at Union Market and, more recently, a full-scale restaurant in Petworth called Taqueria del Barrio. A decent number of D.C. food trucks have grounded themselves in brick-and-mortar operations including TaKorean, District Taco, Abunai Poke, Arepa Zone, and BBQ Bus.

Captain Cookie and the Milk Man is another truck that’s diversified. Kirk Francis and his partner Juliann Francis opened a bakery at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW with plans to serve cookie-craving university students. But their latest project—Tastemakers in Brookland—is a game changer for both diners and food truck operators.

The 8,000-square-foot space located at 2800 10th St. NE combines commercial kitchen space food trucks can use as their commissaries with a more traditional multi-vendor food hall. Captain Cookie opened today as the first vendor, and various other businesses, several of them food trucks, will open stalls in early 2018. Look for DC Ballers, Ball or Nothing, Alchemist Coffee,DC Steakholders, and others.

The Francis’ discovered the importance of building a business around a food truck and now they’re bringing others into the fold to help ensure food trucks continue to be an important part of D.C.’s larger food ecosystem.