If anyone can understand the tension between brick-and-mortar restaurants and the mobile army of food trucks that has stormed D.C. in the past year, it’s Stephan Boillon. After he lost his job at Dino in Cleveland Park in 2008, the veteran chef sought to launch an upscale sandwich shop on Connecticut Avenue NW. His plan was to offer only cold sandwiches, which would enable him to build a restaurant with no burners, no oven, and no deep fryers.
But even Boillon’s stripped-down concept was going to cost $750,000 before the doors opened—a figure that didn’t include rent, utilities, insurance, advertising, taxes, labor, association fees, or any of the other overhead it takes to operate a business in a neighborhood that expects a lot from its entrepreneurs.
So with credit tight and investment money scarce, Boillon found a cheaper way into the gourmet sandwich business: a food truck. For $50,000, one-fifteenth of the price to build his brick-and-mortar concept, Boillon started El Floridano, his rolling unit dedicated to home-made roast-pork Cubans and other bread-driven bites. Boillon had traded a restaurant’s higher profit margin for a truck’s lower start-up costs.
“If you have the volume and you keep your costs down, you can do 14-20 percent,” Boillon says. “With the truck, it’s closer to 10 percent.”
There were other business compromises that Boillon had to accept, too: that his truck could offer only a small range of menu items, that his main opportunity to sell those items would fall during a short and weather-sensitive lunchtime window, and that once those items were sold out, he couldn’t prepare more.
Even with all these limitations, though, the chef figured he could make money. And why not? After years of gobbling down hot dogs, Utz chips, Lance crackers, and assorted other junk foods from sidewalk vendors, D.C. workers and residents were starving for something fresh. They had told the District government as much. In a 2006 survey, more than 66 percent of the respondents said, in so many words, that the variety of street food sucks. They wanted more ethnic eats, more seasonal foods, and more healthy options.
Boillon saw his opening.
He wasn’t the first. Fittingly enough, the District’s Twitter generation of food trucks launched during the inauguration of Mr. Hope and Change in January 2009, when the Fojol Bros. and their kitschy carnival of subcontinental cooking debuted on the National Mall during that frigid weekend. More trucks soon followed, advertising a change in D.C. street food with every 140-character Tweet. Before Washingtonians could say “dirty water dogs,” the streets were awash with Maine lobster rolls, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, Korean-style tacos, Indian butter chicken, Middle Eastern shawarma, and Canadian poutine.
If they so desired, locals would never have to eat another fake half-smoke again.
If only supply-and-demand economics were so easy. The sudden appearance of gourmet food trucks that delighted so many lunch-hour consumers simultaneously horrified the established restaurant community—a deep-pocketed, politically wired bunch.
Now, like in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and every other city where mobile vendors represent new competition, the District’s inline businesses are turning to the legislative process to ease their pain. Thus when it comes to the street-food options, you may not have the ultimate say. Lawyers, lobbyists, social-media activists, councilmembers, and business owners are all working the levers of power to determine what rolls your way for lunch.
And here’s the unique D.C. twist to this traditional battle between the rolling and stationary food providers: The old-school street carts, and the powerful depot owners who represent them, don’t care much for these four-wheeled foodies, either.
Case in point: One day Boillon parked his truck outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station, where he found himself locked in a battle with a food cart vendor. She was screaming. She was calling Boillon a criminal. She even called the Park Police. “She was berating the customers in my line,” Boillon recalls.
She was, in short, not going to just sit down and let these new food trucks run over her. She has plenty of company in this mission.
In the battle for Washington’s food dollars, the mobile vendors have public opinion—and 47,000 Twitter followers—on their side. But their competitors have what might be a more powerful weapon: money.
Well-financed entities like the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington have all submitted proposals asking the D.C. Council to put new restrictions on trucks. Some of the proposals are downright draconian.
“The concept of allowing commercial activity at a parking meter is inconsistent with the public policy that parking meters are for customers, not commercial activity or employees,” wrote Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, in a proposal to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “Parking meters are not appropriate locations. To allow a commercial activity there will directly compete with the business needs of the traditional inline businesses.”
Translation: Stick to the side streets.
“They should be required to stay mobile, and never be allowed to stay in one location more than 30 minutes,” wrote the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District. “They should also not be allowed to move to a second location on the same block or connecting blocks. They must move to a new location completely. This way, they do not destroy the ENTIRE lunch-business or dinner-business of anyone who does not have a property-tax-paying-business.”
Translation: Don’t make yourself at home.
The Adams Morgan BID went even further, proposing that the city forbid food trucks from parking “within a 100 feet of an existing food establishment of any kind.” It also wants them banned entirely from areas designated by the city as “entertainment districts,” such as U Street NW and Chinatown.
Translation: Hello, Congress Heights!
These proposals, among others, will be hashed out as the city’s revised basic vending regulations—in wonkese, Chapter 5 of Title 24—moves toward to the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
The re-write is part of a plan, sanctioned by the council, to promote a more vibrant street-food culture. So food truck aficionados probably don’t need to worry about what the regs will look like when they reach Bowser’s committee. How they look when councilmembers are done with them, though, is another story.
There are at least two doomsday theories floating out there for the food trucks. Pressured by business groups, the council could find a way to reject or table the new regs, continuing a cumbersome status quo. Worse still, councilmembers could actually pass a law that kills off roadway vending in downtown D.C., no questions asked. Whatever happens, crunch time is approaching. By November, in terms of street-food ingenuity, the District could either become the next Los Angeles or remain the same bureaucratic backwater burg that has long allowed processed blandness to dominate its streets.
A business improvement district’s opinion, like its money, doesn’t just drop from the sky. It travels from the streets up, from the businesses that are taxed to help fund BIDs that, in turn, maintain and promote the neighborhoods in which they operate. As such, it’s not surprising that restaurant owners and BIDs often share the same opinion.
Take, for example, Arianne Bennett, co-owner of the Amsterdam Falafelshop. An Adams Morgan business owner, Bennett has something to lose in this battle with food trucks that wander into her turf, which is not to imply that her frustrations are all self-serving. But that’s not to say her anger is at all phony. Businesses like hers, she says, pay premium rents and high property taxes (not to mention annual BID fees) for locations along 18th Street NW and Columbia Road. They do so, in large part, to access the crowds who exit neighborhood watering holes at closing time and lumber into the streets in search of an easy nosh.
In a heartbeat, a food truck can swoop in, gratis, and take advantage of an environment that the businesses and BIDs have created. When Bennett signed a lease for her 18th Street location, she says, she knew exactly who her competitors were. She never thought the city would, one day, just allow a new one to park right outside her door. “We think [mobile vending] can be done better,” Bennett says, calling for a 30-minute limit on trucks in the neighborhood. “This Wild West mentality doesn’t work for us.”
If you talk to enough restaurateurs like Bennett, you’ll start to hear the same complaints about food trucks: the unfair disparity in sales tax rates (brick-and-mortars pay 10 percent on sales, trucks pay a flat $1,500 annually); the profusion of truck operators with out-of-state license plates; the sidewalk congestion that trucks can create; and, as Bennett points out, the trucks’ lack of responsibility to the neighborhood in which they vend.
Some of these complaints seem downright petty, like the one about out-of-state license plates. If you press someone like Alex Kramer, owner of Dos Gringos Café in Mount Pleasant and a vocal critic of business-poaching food trucks, she’ll readily admit that many D.C. business owners live in the ‘burbs, too.
But other complaints strike food truck vendors as legit, like Bennett’s resentment of roadway vendors who take from high-profile neighborhoods while giving nothing back. Leland Morris, president of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC, says he’d be willing to contribute to a neighborhood’s upkeep and promotion. That’s easier, of course, for a business like his. Selling lobster rolls at $15 a pop, Red Hook is a big fish in the small pond of mobile venders.
On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mobile operator sympathetic to Pierre Abushacra’s legal opinion. The co-owner of the Firehook Bakery chain accuses the city of violating its own law by exempting trucks from fixed-site permit rules. The law he’s singling out, the Vending Regulation Act of 2009, reads: “a person shall not vend from a sidewalk, roadway, or other public space unless the person holds…a vending site permit, or other authorization issued by the Mayor setting forth the specific location on public space from which the person may vend.”
Abushacra believes this arbitrary exemption has opened up a Pandora’s Box on District streets. The Firehook stores located on streets favored by food trucks, he says, have seen their sales drop between 10 and 35 percent during those hours when the venders are present.
He can’t speak to Abushacra’s sales figures, but Sam Williams, vending coordinator for DCRA, says there’s no special exemption for food trucks. As it stands, roadway vending has been legal for decades under the so-called ice cream truck law, which allows vehicles to pull over to vend so long as a crowd is already assembled. If there weren’t such a rule on the books, Williams says “about 600 vendors would have been out of business with the stroke of a pen.”
Of course, the law was written before Twitter became the go-to tool for assembling a crowd. In one of the great unintended consequences in modern D.C. politics, the rule that prompted food trucks to embrace Twitter as a way of advertising their ever-changing locations has also provided them a tool to rally public support in the face of critics like Abushacra.
Regardless of how the vehicles got on the streets, Abushacra doesn’t believe the city ever had a public debate on food trucks and their impact on the inline business community. Instead, it’s as if these vendors just magically appeared on the streets without any input from the people who would be affected. He believes DCRA unilaterally introduced food trucks without the proper D.C. Council authorization.
“I have no problem with something that’s transparent and fully debated,” Abushacra says.
The Firehook owner wants to have that debate now, and he wants the council to take its time: Legislators, he says, should table the debate until there’s more discussion of how best to regulate the new rolling businesses that operate on public space. He says he’d like to see food trucks eventually fixed to a permanent site via a public hearing process in which brick-and-mortars can testify about a truck’s impact on nearby establishments.
Abushacra might have missed his chance for that discussion. He sat on the vending task force that the council set up last year to seek agreement on regulations. The task force, dominated by business types, agreed on essentially one major item: that the city should create a permanent Vending Commission, which would supplant DCRA as the trucks’ regulatory overseer. But the task force, officially a temporary body, disbanded after a council-mandated 120-day term. It never achieved its goal of finding consensus on vending rules. Its request for a 60-day extension was rejected.
In the meantime, the city—which could be held in contempt if it suddenly stopped issuing permits—has continued to roll out more licensed food trucks.
Akbar Nazary is another food-industry veteran who’s raising regulatory-law questions about trucks. Nazary, though, doesn’t operate a business that ordinary noshers might frequent. He owns one of the three District depots that warehouse and supply the city’s hundreds of food carts. Under current regulations, Nazary says, all food vendors, including mobile ones, are “supposed to park and operate out of a D.C. commissary.” He says local depot paperwork is required in order to obtain a D.C. Department of Health permit.
The city says otherwise. According to DCRA’s Williams, vendors can legally store their vehicles or carts in facilities outside of the District. The Health Department just needs to verify that the facility in question has been inspected and licensed.
It’s easy to see why Nazary might wish the law were otherwise. He’s been operating WG Foods on Wiltberger Street NW in Shaw for 18 years. His brother-in-law owns a similar depot. Together, these companies have a near-monopoly on overnight storage of sidewalk food carts. Their position comes with benefits: They supply the carts with the processed snacks and chips and sodas that are ubiquitous on D.C. streets. By all reports, it’s been a lucrative business for Nazary and family.
Vendors have not always been as satisfied. Over the years, they’ve complained to DCRA about arrangements in which the depots force them to buy supplies or face eviction or higher rents. If you’re wondering why a sophisticated town like D.C. has had such an adolescent street food scene, these allegations supply a pretty good answer.
Without prompting, Nazary issues a denial. “Our vendors have total free will to sell what they want to sell,” he says. “We have no control whatsoever over the vendors.” If that’s the case, then why don’t Washingtonians see more variety on the streets? “The vendors have been around so long,” Nazary says, “and they’ve become comfortable in their ways.”
Like the restaurant community, Nazary and his fellow depot owners have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes war with the food trucks. Nazary himself was a member of the now-defunct vending task force, which was also co-chaired by Himmat Gulajan, a former depot owner. Gulajan, in fact, used to own Nazary’s depot.
If their efforts to set limits on roadway vending fail, however, Nazary suggests his business can survive the new competition: WG Foods Distributors, after all, serves many shops beyond the old-time street vendors; he compares his business to Costco. But he says he fears for those dirty-water-dog carts still on the streets. “The restaurants and the street vendors are losing money because of the trucks,” he says. “They’re not happy.”
It’s hard to verify Nazary’s claims along downtown’s sidewalks. Cart operators often don’t speak much English—or act like they don’t when a reporter asks invasive questions. I managed to ascertain from three separate vendors that business is indeed down. But none was willing to immediately blame the new food trucks. The owners have been noticing a steady decline since the economy started to tank in 2007.
At 12th and E streets NW, across the way from the Barnes & Noble, Meraf Zego Belay has been selling half-smokes and chips for 19 years. Last week, for the first time, she noticed two new trucks parked just up the street, including Boillon’s El Floridano. Belay says many of her regulars walked straight to the newcomers. It hurt her lunch business, she says.
A little or a lot?
Belay hesitates, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “A lot.” She smiles awkwardly, as if embarrassed or perhaps trying to put a happy spin on the news.
Are you worried about the food trucks at all?
“I’m not scared,” she says. “It’s business. You try.”
This past Monday night, the food truckers gathered at U Street NW’s Affinity Lab to hammer out their latest strategy: another online petition, this one asking followers to press D.C. Council to pass the vending regulations without changes. They’re planning to print out one-sheet flyers and pass them out at the trucks, too.
But vendors also want to get their socially networked flock out into the streets, a sort of Million Munchers March for better street food. They’ll be encouraging people to turn out at the inaugural Curbside Cook-off on Oct. 7 and 8 at City Center DC, where 20 vendors will show off the best of D.C.’s street eats. They’re thinking about holding a rally at the Wilson Building on the day the D.C. Council actually votes on the regulations sometime this fall.
The vendors’ organized efforts are simply an acknowledgement of a basic fact: They’re fighting a superior enemy, at least in terms of resources and power. The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington provided donations to the 2008 re-election campaign of Councilmember Jack Evans, who’s worked to limit the number of food carts in Ward 2, the most desirable area for all vendors.
Earlier this year, Fojol Bros. founder Justin Vitarello got another taste of food-truck politics. Before the vending task force disbanded, Vitarello approached the body in search of common ground. He knew he was in enemy territory. The task force’s co-chairs were Gulajan and Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle BID. The vast majority of the members came from the business community. Some of the new-school mobile vendors, in fact, had been threatened with lawsuits when they showed up to the meetings.
Still, Vitarello pressed on. He showed a PowerPoint presentation that spelled out three overarching goals that might serve as a starting point. The first was to respect inline business. The second was to promote dynamic vending. The third was to create “enforceable & simple” rules. He then laid out his ideas to make mobile vending more palatable to inline businesses. The response? Crickets. “I felt that no one was engaging and listening,” Vitarello remembers.
At one point, Coite Manuel of Food Chain DC, which partners with hot dog vendors to supply them with more interesting meals, stood up and asked the room, “Are you listening to what he’s saying?”
It was not long afterward that Vitarello started calling regular meetings of the truck owners to counteract the political power of inline businesses, BIDs, and depot owners. The owners knew, after all, that their clout lay with the nearly 50,000 people who follow their trucks on Twitter. They just needed to find a way to harness that power.
At one meeting, Boillon suggested that they direct their Twitter followers to submit public comments to DCRA, which had posted the proposed regulations online. Boillon created a primitive GoDaddy webpage, dubbed Yes on Title 24. He drafted a sample letter that followers could send to DCRA. Then the vendors hit their social networks.
One of the people to discover Yes on Title 24 was Asher Huey, an online organizer for a political consulting firm. He forwarded the petition to his friend, Matthew Slutsky, the director of partnerships at Change.org, a for-profit business that works with non-profits to promote their campaigns. Seeing an opportunity to tie the District’s emerging street-food culture into his company’s social-change mission, Slutsky took up the trucks’ cause. He created an online petition that was far more user-friendly than Boillon’s. His petition also targeted the entire D.C. Council, not just the legislative affairs specialist at DCRA. Then Change.org sent out the petition to the 20,000 D.C. residents on its list.
Never underestimate the power of grassroots organizing. By the close of the comment period on Aug. 31, DCRA had received around 2,400 e-mails. The vast majority of them supported the rules to keep the food trucks running.
It’s safe to say the comments were a bit more passionate than your typical public input on street-use regulatory matters. Take this one, from Thomas Fine:
Downtown DC has for years suffered from the stranglehold placed on food vendors by those who control the supplies of mobile vendors, and by unimaginative fixed-location food vendors. The result…is that, despite a large and diverse pool of potential customers, consumers have little lunch choice beyond nasty “hot-dog-and-chips” carts, dull sandwiches, and pay-by-the-pound food bars. Recently food trucks have attempted to meet the untapped desire for a modicum of choice, quality and creativity in food options. Rather than stepping up to meet the challenge by presenting better options, the fixed-location vendors, through their puppet BIDs and lawyers, are attempting to mis-use DCRA regulations to cut-off their customers’ lunch-time options.
But the mobile vendors also seem to understand their fragile new place in D.C.’s food hierarchy. As a result, they’re not total hardliners. They’re open to compromise, and they’re open to the city’s plan to create “development zones,” where trucks might have a fixed location one day in a park, where in turn the impact on local business would be lessened.
They’re also devising whole new ways of engaging with their inline counterparts. Red Hook’s Morris has developed one-day partnerships with local restaurants and shops. He’s worked with Chinatown Coffee, Bedrock Billiards in Adams Morgan, and Ireland’s Four Fields in Cleveland Park to seek arrangements that are beneficial to both parties, like the ability to take Red Hook’s lobster rolls inside a brick-and-mortar operation and order a discounted drink.
For the restaurant or coffee shop, the deal allows owners to tap into some of Red Hook’s devoted following, which is a neat irony. In this case, it’s not a truck poaching business from an established neighborhood, but an established neighborhood business gaining synergy via a hugely popular new truck, which tells you something about how far the mobile vendors have come in such a short time.
It also underscores a point made by Fojol’s Vitarello: The food trucks can actually create business in certain places. “There’s nothing going on at 20th and L,” he says, offering an example. “We can help [businesses] with that. We can activate some spaces.”