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In preparation for my chat this afternoon with Kojo Nnamdi, I tugged yet again on the ear of Sam Williams, the vending and special events coordinator for D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Agency. He’s my Deep Throat when it comes to understanding the complex world of D.C. street vending.
One of the main stumbling blocks to new and better street food options are the dirty-water-dog vendors already on our sidewalks. Mostly immigrants, these veteran vendors have routinely stirred up concerns that passing new regulations would essentially put them out of business, since Washingtonians would soon have many more options for street-based snacks.
There is, no doubt, truth to their fears. But both the city and a private company, Food Chain, are working with existing vendors to show them that they don’t have to cling to their old dogs.
Food Chain has been cooking up jerk chicken wraps and tacos for a number of local vendors, who sell the spicy snacks under their standard-issue Sabrett umbrellas. It’s a model that has proven surprisingly popular, assuming of course people know the carts are selling these new bites.
But the city has also quietly been talking to some Ethiopian vendors about switching their carts over to their native cuisine, Williams tells me, so that they’ll stand out from the coming crowd of street foodies.
“There’s tons of fear about trying something new…and totally different,” Williams says. The vendors, many of whom could already be living week to week, fear that the switchover would cost them too much money to upgrade their carts or fear that the new cuisine may not even sell. There’s comfort in the old ways.
But those old ways will likely not serve them forever. Williams estimates that about 200 potential vendors are just itching to hit our streets once the new regulations pass, which could happen by this summer. About 25 percent of those 200 vendors, Williams says, are looking to sell food.
The future options, Williams says, will include “every kind of food under the sun,” from “pizza to every type of international food out there.”