Construction site
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Any weekday morning after 9 a.m., near Union Market, Navy Yard, or wherever a high-rise condo is going up in D.C., you can find one or two aluminum-paneled catering trucks arriving to serve construction workers on the job. In Navy Yard, one honks its horn as it passes and workers turn to follow. The items they’re after are almost exclusively Central American staples, like tamales or pupusas.

These trucks fly under the radar compared to their flashier counterparts who serve the downtown lunch crowd. It’s been like this for years. That is, until the pandemic sent downtown food trucks searching for new customers. Now, the two categories of food trucks find themselves eating away at each other’s business, prompting a food truck turf war.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C.’s population would swell during daytime hours by as much as 87 percent thanks to the 250,000 commuters who come from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and another 100,000 who come from Fairfax County, Virginia. Today, most of these individuals are still teleworking and that’s left the some 900 food trucks that used to feed them throughout the District in a hole.

A steady flow of downtown workers drew Graciela to the food truck business two years ago. “There were so many people,” she says, “so many people who used to come work in those buildings.” Graciela learned the business from her father, whose food truck was a success. She remembers when she would do more than $1,000 in sales just at lunch.

Like her father, she sells fried chicken cutlet sandwiches on hoagie rolls topped with chopped lettuce, tomato, and chipotle sauce. They come with a side of fries. Now she brings in 30 percent to 40 percent of what she made before. “The truth is,” she says, “I’m not earning what I was, but [it’s] better than nothing.”

Graciela’s husband outfitted the truck to make it look more like her father’s. Both are called DC Chicken. It’s cream colored, with a striped awning over the window and a mini street lamp attached to the side. “What a shame we built it in such a bad moment,” she says. 

Some neighborhoods have leveraged their listservs to hail local food trucks to residential areas, giving business owners a needed boost. But for food truck operators who did not already have an active social media presence or for whom navigating English-language forums might be a challenge, they’ve found a new set of reliable customers in construction workers. Their work hasn’t slowed down.

According to data from the Associated General Contractors of America, construction employment in the District is at the same level it was at in 2019. In both July 2019 and 2020, 14,700 construction workers were employed in the District. This figure is down from its peak in 2016, but the population is significant enough for “food trucks” desperate for new diners. The result is a turf war with “catering trucks” who had been exclusively serving construction sites for close to a decade. 

The difference between the two sets of trucks is clear. Food trucks are brightly colored and branded with business names. Catering trucks are indistinguishable from any other vehicle at a construction site, save for the steaming hotel pans of stewed chicken and vegetables you see and smell when the doors fling open. 

“We’ve been serving construction workers since forever,” one truck owner tells City Paper. She requested anonymity because some of these catering trucks are not licensed by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. We’ll call her Angelina. She’s been vending at a Union Market construction site since late 2019. Workers at a bakery on the same block have observed DCRA fining them, but they can be hard to regulate given their mobile nature. 

Now the downtown food trucks are encroaching on their business. Angelina says she used to sell 100 meals per day, but it’s now closer to 50 or 60. “There’s too much competition,” she says. “Too many cars have started coming around selling food. It’s for the same reason, out of necessity, but still, this business isn’t cheap and the possibilities here really are small.” On the other side of the street, Angelina eyes two food trucks. “They’re the new ones in the area,” she says. “We’re the ones who’ve always had this spot.” 

One of the trucks across the street, La Buena, sells tacos, burritos, and burrito bowls. The chorizo burrito is a standout. The owner, Ulises, says that they’ve been coming to this construction site since May. Like the aluminum-paneled catering trucks, he only stays long enough to feed construction workers during their rush hour. 

“After that, there’s nothing,” Ulises says. When talking about how business has been, Ulises nods his head towards the catering trucks. “We all have a right to look for food,” he says. “But it affects us that other trucks come that don’t have a license.” 

He says he only makes about half of what he used to and adds that he’s had to lower prices. Before the pandemic, he parked between Union Station and the CNN building at 820 1st St. NE, where anyone on their way to the Metro might stop by.

Both Ulises and Graciela used to participate in the DCRA food truck lottery, which the department used to award choice spots by the National Mall. “Those spots were good,” Graciela says. “Almost no one brought lunch from home,” she says. “Instead they used to buy their lunch at the vendors parked out in front of their building.”

Graciela only found the construction site where she currently parks in November. She says she’s had some difficulty establishing steady clientele for that reason. She also took time off when it was cold out because a sudden gust of wind can become dangerous when working a gas grill inside of a truck. 

She hopes she can attract construction workers looking for more variety at mealtime with her hoagies. “The other vendors who come here sell food, but it’s Latino, Latino food, and they say ‘Aye, I’m bored, I want something different,’ and so I tell them, ‘Here’s something different!’”

But both Graciela and Ulises are not sure how long they can go on like this. “We’re fighters, but this has hit us very hard,” Ulises says. “The government doesn’t help, there’s nothing, not a single benefit. What we get, we get for ourselves.” He tried to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but struck out. 

Graciela is hoping downtown office buildings fill back up. “Without them, the truth is that we can’t do anything,” she says. Graciela’s father is also waiting for commuters to return before attempting to serve customers again. He’s older and doesn’t want to go through the process of finding new regulars, according to Graciela. In the meantime, he drives for Uber.

Ulises hopes that the vaccine and potential for falling cases in the spring will change behavior. “We all have hope in the vaccine,” he says. “I trust in God that [the vaccine] will improve things and that people will go out with more confidence.”

Ulises has also had to stop selling outside of his church, where he could rely on selling another 100 or so meals every Sunday when around 800 members would attend services. Now only 40 or so people show up, and there’s little socializing afterwards because of the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Barring the return of downtown workers, it remains unclear what food trucks will do. (Operating a food truck business was difficult in D.C. even before the pandemic and worsened as soon as it hit.) “If they don’t return, we’ll keep trying here at construction sites,” Graciela says. “We’ll see what we can make. It could be very little, but we have to keep moving forward because there’s no other way to sell [food].” 

Even with the vaccine, there might be far fewer downtown workers in the future. According to a Greater Washington Partnership survey, while 60 percent of employers in the D.C. area say the availability of the vaccine will drive their decision to return to in-person work, nearly as many say their employees will continue teleworking at least part-time.

Before starting La Buena, Ulises spent a decade working at construction sites in the area. That’s how he knew he could find new customers to rely on. But, he can’t help but feel bitter about the fact that he and his family have had to go it alone throughout the pandemic.

“We ought to be equals,” he says. He writes off his failure to secure a PPP loan or other aid for his family “as discrimination” because they immigrated from El Salvador to the U.S. “This bothers me more than anything,” he says. “All the other companies had help, us nothing.” 

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English for publication.