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After two years in operation, some Adams Morgan businesses wish the Latino market that operates three days a week in Unity Park at Columbia Road and Champlain Street would please go away—at least most of the time.
The market, a business incubator overseen by the city’s Office on Latino Affairs (OLA) and now administered by the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is designed to help immigrants turn subsistence street food businesses into established restaurants. The 14 vendors currently participating in the program receive no direct subsidy, and are required to be D.C. residents, obtain food handlers permits, pay a flat sales tax of $375 quarterly, and attend classes in financial literacy.
Here’s the problem: Neighboring restaurants that sell similar food say the city-sanctioned market has stolen their lunch traffic on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—the busiest days of the week. And that, the businessowners complained at a contentious ANC IC meeting last night, is plain unfair.
“I put all that I have in this business,” says Juan Loyola, who worked in an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in Tysons Corner for five years before starting Pollo Granjero in 2008. “If I fail, all that I have is gone. Who’s gonna help us?”
“They pay rent. They pay for trash. They are inspected,” added Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association president Pat Patrick, who owns a local commercial real estate agency. “These other vendors don’t have this. The hallmark of capitalism is that you’re starting out on a level playing field. And by god, this is far from a level playing field!” (After the ANC meeting, Patrick asked OLA staffer George Escobar whether the vendors were all legal immigrants; Escobar answered that it’s not the District’s policy to check.)
In addition, Adams Morgan BID director Kristen Barden says the vendors may not be serving food that’s up to temperature or cooked in certified kitchens, leave bags of food waste next to trash cans that attract rats, and take up valuable parking spaces on the weekends (many with cars that have Maryland and Virginia plates).
“There’s a high risk level there for the general public,” Barden said, with regard to food safety. “It’s kind of crazy. They’re ripe for someone getting sick and suing them.”
Finally, Amsterdam Falafel Shop owner Arianne Bennett argued that having people operate at a food stand is no way to train them to run a business (there are no time limits on how long a vendor can stay in the program, and only two have “graduated” to set up their own restaurants). Instead, she offered to take one of them in as an apprentice in her own shop. “They’re just camping,” Bennett finished.
Working with Councilmember Jim Graham’s office and the relative government agencies, Barden has proposed that instead of spending a cumulative nine to 12 days per month in Adams Morgan, the market be converted into a “moveable feast” that travels around to different locations in the city. That way, she says, vendors can develop a broader clientele for when they eventually set up their own restaurants. At least, she says, move the market to lower-traffic days that local restaurants don’t depend on for most of their income.
But the businesses got some pushback from nearby residents who think the market adds diversity and brings more customers to the neighborhood. The ANC passed a resolution calling for several regulations be adhered to, but did not endorse Barden’s suggestion that the market be moved elsewhere. Commissioner Nancy Shia also said that asking vendors to pack out their food waste at the end of the day—an amendment offered by ANC Chairman Wilson Reynolds—would be “discrimination,” given the number of pizza slices end up littering 18th street on weekend mornings.