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Remember the Hipster Barista meme? You know: that photo of a bearded dude in a black V-neck, arms crossed under his chest tattoo, wearing a look that said, “You want more foam with that, dickbag?” Reddit’s basement trolls stomped all over that one, until, finally, there was nothing funny left to say about the favored day job of starving artists.
That was 2011, around the time another artist-friendly industry was taking hold in D.C.: food trucks. Often, the folks slinging those pizza slabs and serving up Thai dishes are the type of people we’ve long been accustomed to seeing behind the counter at local coffee shops: musicians.
Within the past few years, food trucks have expanded the employment pool for members of D.C.’s creative class. For musicians especially, they offer an ideal setup: lunchtime hours and a few weekend shifts—great for shows, tours, and band practice. Restaurants and coffee shops, the two predominant employers of the working musician, usually can’t compete with that.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Two years ago, Ryan McLaughlin was working at Sticky Rice on H Street NE when the owners of Dangerously Delicious Pies asked him to run The Pie Truck, the shop’s mobile outlet. “It seemed like a pretty good gig,” he says. “The hours are very, very helpful when it comes to working on musical projects.” McLaughlin, 28, plays in D.C. bands Typefighter and Joy Buttons, both of which have records coming out this summer. Working for the pie truck, he starts his day before 8 a.m., and usually wraps up by 4 p.m., leaving a good chunk of time for band practice, recording, and planning his upcoming wedding. His fiancée is the head baker at the pie shop.
Art-folk singer Marian McLaughlin (no relation to Ryan) says her parents told her she’d never find a job unless she changed the way she dressed. They clearly didn’t know about Fojol Brothers, the kooky, carnivalesque fleet of food trucks that helped establish D.C.’s food truck scene. “The dress code at Fojol is—I guess there is no dress code,” says McLaughlin, 25, who no longer works for the company. “You can wear polka dots one day and you can wear a feathered hat the next day, ’cause there’s that whole carnival twist to it.” Meanwhile, Fojol employee Drew Hagelin, also 25, says the promise of flexible hours attracted him to the job. When we spoke, he’d just wrapped up a short tour with his slowcore band, Cigarette, but he spends an average of four days a week working on the truck. “It’s a crazy job. I’m wearing a costume and I’m blasting music out of this thing,” he says. “It’s kind of a bizarre experience, which I can appreciate. And I can be really weird with customers and it’s not looked down upon.”
Fojol Brothers might be the first D.C. food truck to produce its own house band: A few past and present Fojol employees, including Hagelin and Sierra Leonean bubu musician Janka Nabay, recently started playing together while Nabay’s main band, The Bubu Gang, has been cooling its heels. Nabay says they’re just jamming for now. In the long term, Nabay still has his sights set on the hospitality industry: His real dream is to open a hotel. “When you get a hotel,” he says, “game over.”