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Late last year, Kim Gandy embarked on a pandemic project: booking D.C. food trucks to visit Woodside, the neighborhood where she lives near downtown Silver Spring. She thought people near her would appreciate a break from cooking or the chance to mix up their takeout routine.
With the help of a couple of collaborators, Gandy sent out a survey to her neighborhood listserv, wondering if people would be interested and what types of food they were craving. The response was a resounding, “Hell, yes!” More than 50 replies came back, requesting everything from a broad variety of Asian cuisines to barbecue and Middle Eastern foods.
The first truck came in mid-December, parking in the lot of a local church. The plan, at first, was to invite one truck every two weeks. “But we got such a great reaction right away, we started doing them once a week,” says Gandy, who has already scheduled weekly visits through April. “The response has been nothing but positive.”
Almost every truck has sold out of food, sometimes racking up more than 200 orders. So far, a diverse array of operators have shown up, including Schmaltz Bros., PhoWheels, and Money Muscle BBQ. “They’re delighted,” Gandy says. “They want to come back. Some have asked if they can come once a month.”
Neighborhood visits like these can be a rare bright spot during a financially difficult time. “It’s not just making the day; it’s making the week,” says Jennifer Meltzer, co-owner of Money Muscle BBQ. Her venture started as a ghost kitchen in All Set in downtown Silver Spring (which she also co-owns). The food truck first hit the road in August.
Between last September and January, Money Muscle BBQ earned almost equal revenue from doing neighborhood visits with their food truck as they did from selling on Uber Eats. They sell food on the delivery app five days a week, while only booking one or two food truck outings per week.
Ché Ruddell-Tabisola, who co-owns the BBQ Bus food truck, says operators are desperately looking for new revenue streams. After seeing their sales grow between 8 and 25 percent a year since launching in 2010 (they opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Brightwood and a robust catering operation), the company watched its sales plunge by 48 percent last year. “It’s a heartbreaker,” he says.
The food truck currently does a neighborhood visit every two weeks or so, and has been to Arlington, Alexandra, Fairfax, and Silver Spring. Ruddell-Tabisola says sales on these can exceed a pre-pandemic lunch service when the truck parked downtown. BBQ Bus hadn’t driven to these neighborhoods prior to the pandemic.
That said, neighborhood visits aren’t organized consistently, making them hard to rely on. “It’s ad hoc, it’s natural, it’s organic,” Ruddell-Tabisola says. “There are a lot of parallels to how we started. Back then, customers would tweet at us where they wanted us to come. Now those supporters we used to feed downtown during lunch are reaching out to ask if we’ll come to their neighborhoods.”
Thankfully, Ruddell-Tabisola says, neighborhoods are well networked because of social media and listservs. “Once you connect with the ‘mayor’ of the block, the social director of the neighborhood, word gets around pretty fast,” he says.
The process can be a heavy lift for neighborhood organizers. They have to track down food trucks through websites, social media, or contact info they’ve obtained from someone who has booked the truck in the past. This can be time consuming. Gandy estimates she sent close to a thousand emails engaging with food truck owners and responding to questions from neighbors.
Kyley McGeeney, who is behind the popular @missionmichelin Instagram account and hosts a supper club series at her home with well-known chefs, organizes weekly food truck visits, as well as food drops from restaurants and alcohol vendors for Woodmoor, her neighborhood in Silver Spring. This work consumes 10 to 20 hours of her time every week.
Demand for food trucks is so high, her neighborhood now hosts two every Thursday evening in the parking lot of Pine Crest Elementary School. Visitors have included Little Miner Taco, Timber Pizza Co., and Hangry Panda. “People have told me it’s been a bright spot in their pandemic,” McGeeney says. “The appeal is the convenience, the variety, and not having to leave your neighborhood.”
She now coaches people in other neighborhoods who want to start bringing in food trucks by sharing a master vendor list and walking them through every step of the process. “I very strongly believe that all the supply is there and all of the demand is there,” she says. “It’s just about coming up with a new way for those to meet.”
Money Muscle BBQ’s co-owners hope more food trucks get in on these opportunities, but not just for the cash infusion. Neighborhood visits are providing them a much-needed morale lift too. “I get to see our guests again,” Meltzer says. “Right now, we just send our food out. We don’t know what happens. Sometimes we get feedback, but more often than not it’s like, ‘I hope they like it.’”
“People are so wonderful,” Edward Reavis, co-owner and pitmaster of Money Muscle BBQ, echoes. “People are telling us, ‘Thanks so much for being here’ and asking, ‘How are you doing? Are you making it? Can you get by?’”
“So, call your favorite restaurant,” Meltzer urges. “See if they do this sort of thing, and then book them.”
Setting up shop on private property like a church parking lot is usually a safe bet with permission. But, food truck operators who are considering a neighborhood visit should check local jurisdictions’ regulations regarding where food trucks are allowed to park on the street. D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, for example, offered the following statement:
“Generally, food trucks are not allowed to operate on any residential block designated as residential permit parking unless authorized by a special event permit. A food truck can legally operate in mixed zoned areas where metered parking is available. However, they must be legally parked, paying the time meters, and adhering to the time constraints allotted for that particular parking space.”
This story has been updated with a comment from DCRA.