Whether the decor is faux '50s silver and neon or authentic greasy spoon, diners are classic Americana, down to the familiar menu items. Rich, poor, black, white--all rub shoulders in the vinyl booths and at formica counters. We explore the enduring appeal and nostalgia of the diner.
The rise of Washington’s food truck businesses has brought new dining options to enthusiastic eaters and sparked a bitter feud between brick-and-mortar restaurants and truck operators. After several years of debate, D.C. regulators are now proposing new rules that seek to balance these competing concerns. We explore the future of food trucks in D.C.
- Nicholas Majett Director, D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs: Vendor Regulations
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. The food fight between the District's restaurants and its food trucks is about to get more interesting. For the past several years, mobile vendors have taken the city by storm, serving everything from lobster rolls to savory pies to throngs of customers who flock to their trucks, all under the governance of regulations written decades ago, in an era when ice cream trucks and hot dog carts had the city to themselves. No more.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs rolled out a plan last week designed to make mobile food vendors play by 21st century rules, a plan that would give neighborhoods a say in how many trucks and carts are serving up food to the masses in their corners of the city. Joining us to explore the new rules the city has put on the table, as well as some of the other changes the city might be making to vending regulations, is Nicholas Majett. He is the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, DCRA. Nicholas Majett, thank you for joining us.
MR. NICHOLAS MAJETTMy pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, are invited to join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you live or work in a neighborhood where food trucks have become a regular part of everyday life? What do you think they bring to your neck of the woods? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question. Make a comment there.
NNAMDINicholas Majett, food trucks are a big-time business in Washington these days. All you have to do is cruise by Farragut Square or L'Enfant Plaza during the lunch rush, and you'll see hordes of people standing in line for grilled cheese sandwiches, cupcakes, Korean tacos. It's my understanding that writing new rules for the mobile vendors has also been big-time as an undertaking, that you've worked through a year-and-a-half and through thousands of public comments. Why was this exercise necessary? And what were you aiming to do with the new rules?
MAJETTWell, the current rules are outdated. They're over 30 years old. And when they were written, they didn't contemplate mobile vending. A lot of things have happened over the course of 30 years, including social media, which kind of feeds the mobile vending industry. Thirty years ago, when the regulations were written, they were primarily designed for ice cream trucks, which is primary what mobile vending was. And it required trucks to only stop when there were customers. And once they served the customers, they had to leave that particular site.
NNAMDINo line, no waiting.
MAJETTNo line, no waiting, correct.
NNAMDIWell, one of your new proposals that's been getting a lot of attention is your proposal to create vending development zones that would allow neighborhoods some say in the businesses that operate inside them. How would that system work?
MAJETTWell, that's pretty much urban planning. That system would work where individuals, such as a downtown bid, ANC commissioners, businesses, could propose a zone designed primarily for mobile vending and would dictate the rules in which the mobile vendors would have to operate. It could limit the number and that type of thing. It would have to be approved by DCRA. So it kind of works as an urban development tool, so that people can plan their neighborhoods more carefully with the input of businesses, the District and the neighborhood.
NNAMDITo what extent are the neighborhood zone plans being driven by complaints from certain neighborhoods that they've become a kind of Wild West for trucks? What particular problems are you aiming to solve with these zones?
MAJETTWell, again, this is just part of planning so that, you know, you don't have a saturation of one business that impacts the quality of life, the health, safety and welfare of the residents. For example, in some cases, we have what's called overlays. We may have -- we have situations where there's a restriction on the number of restaurants because particular areas are already oversaturated with restaurants.
MAJETTBut these zones would act pretty much in the same manner but allow input from all concerned, so that it's more -- it's better -- the government is better able to manage the mobile vendors, keeping in mind the health, safety and welfare of the residents, visitors and businesses in the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIBut have you been getting a lot of complaints in certain neighborhoods that there seem to be too many mobile food trucks in those neighborhoods, truck city?
MAJETTWell, one comes to mind, and that's the Farragut Square area, where the demand is probably the greatest in the city. That's an area with a lot of office buildings, a lot of government employees and, obviously, people who like the concept of mobile vending. So we have received some complaints from the surrounding businesses, as well as the downtown business association, that there are too many trucks, that they create a lot of trash and debris, block the sidewalks and other things that come with a lot of traffic and a lot of individuals.
NNAMDIIf you've got questions or comments, what do you think food trucks and street food contribute to the cultural fabric of a city like Washington, D.C.? You can call us at 800-433-8850. In case you're just joining us, our guest is Nicholas Majett. He is the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Let's go to Kate in Washington. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATE REEDHi, Kojo. Hi, Nick. How are you?
REEDThis is Kate Reed.
MAJETTGood morning, Kate.
REEDYeah. Listen, I just wanted to say that Portland, Ore. and Pioneer Square has a similar kind of thing. It just works out so well because the people get what they want, but it's also the businesses. There's a delicate balance, you know, with the businesses that are the brick-and-mortars. But, more importantly, Kojo, I just wanted to let everyone out there know that I've attended several meetings of outreach with Nicholas Majett and his education for the residents, as well as business people.
REEDAnd he's just doing a remarkable job balancing between the outreach to the community and the residents and soliciting their input and still being pro-business and trying to bring -- to the District. So, you know, I'm just a resident that wants to chime in, just want to say, way to go, Nick.
NNAMDIKate, you've broken our cardinal rule, no praise for the guest. But we'll let this one get through.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. To be clear, Nick Majett, before we go any further, the new rules would have to be approved by the council to go into effect. Is that correct? What's the process here?
MAJETTThat's correct. Well, the council -- we have submitted the rules, the proposed rules to the council. The council will have a hearing and allow the public's input on the rules and then make a decision on whether or not to approve the rules as submitted or to tweak the rules. They could add. They could take away. That's pretty much the process, so that the community, as well as the businesses, will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed regulations.
MAJETTNow, I might add that the first set of regulations we submitted over a year ago, we got over 2,500 comments from the public, most of which were in favor of the food trucks. So I imagine we'll get a lot of input, but also over the year, I think, that the existing businesses, as well as the mobile vendors, have been working together. So I think that what we had a year-and-a-half ago was quite different than what we have today in terms of people being able to coexist.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. The food trucks -- to use a bad pun -- seem to be on a roll. Where do you think food trucks and restaurants are most directly engaged in competition in Washington, D.C.? 800-433-8850. What kinds of customers do you think they are competing for? 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. To go back to the so-called ice cream truck rule again, would it still be required that there be lines waiting for mobile vendors before they park and do business under the rule change, under the proposed rule change?
MAJETTNo. Under the proposed rule change, the rules are a little different for mobile vendors that prepare food. For example, if a truck is preparing hamburgers and they have to -- they have grills and so forth.
NNAMDIThe savory trucks?
MAJETTCorrect. They have a little more latitude than trucks that are, say, ice cream trucks or dessert trucks where the food is pre-prepared and it's just a matter of serving the customer and taking the money. So food trucks have more latitude -- the savory trucks, as you put -- have more latitude than the trucks -- ice cream trucks and trucks where the food is prepared, such as desserts and so forth.
NNAMDIAnd Kristi Whitfield, the executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association, she's in the cupcake business. She runs the Curbside Cupcakes truck. And the new rules would treat dessert trucks, like hers, differently from trucks that have savory menus. Why is that?
MAJETTWell, because the savory trucks, they have, you know, grills. They have cooking oil. And it's harder -- it -- from the -- well, actually, they're less mobile than the trucks that serve desserts and ice cream and so forth. So it's easier for a dessert truck, ice cream truck to move when they don't have customers waiting as opposed to the savory trucks, which have grills and is just not as easy to pack up and move to another location.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is -- Kristi Whitfield, the aforementioned, is on the air. Kristi, go ahead, please.
MS. KRISTI WHITFIELDHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Hi, Nick. How are you?
WHITFIELDI -- so I want to first commend DCRA and Nick Majett on getting these rules published. You know, we, as the D.C. Food Truck Association, are really excited to see these new regulations pass. And so I want to say, first and foremost, that we support the regs. The food trucks are ready for new regs, and we are grateful to see this moving forward.
NNAMDIHowever, but insofar as nevertheless.
WHITFIELDExactly right. I do have a couple of questions for Mr. Majett, specifically about things that impact me personally, like the difference why we're treating sweet and savory trucks differently. And then I also wanted to ask him about, you know, competition, and if there's any development zones and how we're going to ensure that people that like food trucks at Farragut Square aren't going to have limited options based on these (word?) development zones.
NNAMDIYour turn, Nick Majett.
MAJETTWell, what I think what we're going to take into account is the health, safety and welfare and the quality of life of the businesses, the visitors to the District of Columbia and the residents, which is actually DCRA's mission. Obviously, a saturation of one thing could be detrimental to that mission. If you have too many trucks that are parked, I mean, it could be a traffic issue. It could be blocking a sidewalk issue. It could increase the trash and debris, which then gives rise to rodents and so forth.
MAJETTSo we have to -- everything has to be done -- we have to regulate to allow free enterprise, competitive markets, the least amount of government restrictions. But number one is the health, safety and quality of life for the residents and so forth. So we'll take all those things into account. But like -- as I indicated earlier, it's all about planning, urban development, having a mixture of businesses so there's not an oversaturation and there's not a detrimental impact on the people that live, work and visit the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIKristi Whitfield, Nick Majett mentioned earlier the distinction between dessert trucks and savory trucks and that savory trucks have a little more preparation to do. Do you think that's a distinction without a difference, or is it a valid distinction?
WHITFIELDWell, I think that all of the food trucks should be regulated the same. You know, I think that some of the savory -- some of the sweet trucks have things like hot coffee and other things that are also prepared. You know, we would like to be able to sit legally at a meter for the period of the meter just like savory trucks are. We don't feel real reason to distinguish between sweet and savory.
NNAMDIWhat was the other point you were asking about having to do with competition?
WHITFIELDWell, the question I have around competition is, you know, when you look at the vending development zones and decide what oversaturation means, I guess, I do have a concern that, you know, oversaturation may become a new euphemism for limiting competition because the customers seem to be voting with their feet that they want food trucks at Farragut. And, you know, we have a real concern that the vending development zones will be used to limit competition in a way that doesn't take the desires of the customers, who are voting with their feet, into account.
MAJETTOK. Well, my response to that is, first, these are proposed regulations. They were done keeping in mind all of the comments we received from brick-and-mortar stores, the food trucks, residents and so forth. The last thing we're going to do is to prevent fair competition. That's not our goal. Our goal is regulation to make sure everything is safe, to make sure there's a level playing field. But two things: One, you can apply for either permit. You can apply for so-called dessert, as we'll call it, kind of license and/or the savory food truck license as we'll call it.
MAJETTOr as we do -- one is -- so you can do that, apply for either license and be treated, you know, that way. These are proposed regulations. We'll take that comment into consideration, and we'll see, you know, where we go from there. But we don't want to preclude fair competition. In fact, the government is precluded from restraining trade and fair competition.
NNAMDIKristi Whitfield is the executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association. Kristi, thank you for calling. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have questions or comments for Nicholas Majett -- he is the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs -- you can call us at 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Go to our website, kojosjow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation with Nicholas Majett. He is the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs with proposed regulations for mobile food trucks in the District. Nicholas Majett, it seems that one thing we should be clear about is that a cart is not a truck. And your proposal also contains some ideas about how the carts, those that remain parked on sidewalks, can do business. What are we talking about on that front?
MAJETTAre you -- OK, well, there's a category called sidewalk vendors, and these are vendors that have a cart. They have a permit to be in specified location, and the new regulations would allow us to issue permits for sidewalk vending locations, which we hadn't been able to do in the past. We would also grandfather existing sidewalk vendors, who've been in those current locations for a while, and would open up new sidewalk vending for additional locations throughout the District's commercial corridors.
NNAMDIYou may have to clear up some confusion here because we got an email from Betsy Allman of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, who says, "The vending law requires that vending permits be issued for specific vending locations. How do you reconcile this with proposed regulations, which do not require specific sites for food trucks, but allow them to vend anywhere except on specified streets or within certain distances of intersections?"
MAJETTWell, there are restrictions for mobile vending. There are a lot of restricted areas where they can't vend throughout the District of Columbia, and they have to vend at a legal parking spot. And if there's a meter, they have to pay the meter, and they can only remain there for so long as the meter allows. So there are a lot of restrictions for mobile vendors. First, they have to find a legal spot. There are a lot of zones in the District of Columbia where they cannot vend, and that would be made available to the mobile vendors when they get their permits.
NNAMDIBack to the sidewalk vendors for a second, what criteria does the city use to determine where sidewalk vending would be allowed? Because here, again, we're talking about fixed locations, right?
MAJETTYeah, well, it has to be a commercial zone. It has to be D.C. property. As you know, a lot of property in the District is federal property over which we have no jurisdiction, so it would have to be District property, you know, District public space. It would have to be in a designated commercial corridor, so there are some restrictions even for the sidewalk vendors.
NNAMDII read that there's even a rule for the maximum amount of umbrellas allowed on a food cart. One umbrella, correct?
NNAMDINo more than one. On to the telephones again. Here is Daniel in Washington, D.C. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELHi, Kojo. I think this is -- just seem to me like a textbook example of rent seeking, basically the surrounding businesses trying to reduce competition, increase -- to increase the price and kind of limit entry to these new, innovative businesses that people actually like. And I think it's part of -- and why the D.C. business community in general is so stagnant when compared to the cities -- like Austin in Texas or some of the burrows of New York.
NNAMDIAre you saying that the D.C. brick-and-mortar businesses should be doing something, should be changing their business model in order to compete more effectively?
DANIELWell, I think this is basically just an attempt to keep out new ideas, keep out new competition. And, I mean, just seems to me like -- I mean, I've worked in D.C., and the selection isn't so great. And the food carts have kind of been a godsend. And it just seems like they're (unintelligible) now, so...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to raise this question with you, Daniel, and with Nicholas Majett. Last spring, we chatted with the owner of a Marvelous Market franchise on Capitol Hill. One of his complaints was that the patrons of a popular food truck were using his outdoor tables to eat food that they had bought off the truck. What would you say to that owner, Daniel, that brick-and-mortar owner?
DANIELOoh, what were you saying? They were using things from an existing business to eat the food from the food truck?
DANIELI mean, obviously, that business can decide not to let them -- you know, I don't know.
NNAMDIWell, they did have a conversation about it. There was Seth Shapiro who is the Capitol Hill Marvelous Market owner, and he said that they did have conversation. And there may have been some resolution of it. But it underscores the question that I'm going to ask Nicholas Majett, and that is: In the new regulations, are there are any rules aimed at solving those kinds of conflicts or at improving enforceability when those kinds of incidents happen?
MAJETTWell, we could -- well, first of all, let me say that we looked at other jurisdictions. We looked at other -- to determine what best practices were, we looked at New York. In fact, New York kept the number of vending licenses that it issued. So there is a regulatory scheme in New York as well. And we listened to that argument, the argument that was just made that the brick-and-mortar establishments were trying to prevent competition, and we heard that argument. We also heard from the food vendors.
MAJETTWe heard from the street vendors, and we thought that these regulations struck a balance of the legitimate concerns of brick-and-mortar businesses, as well as mobile vendors. With respect to -- we can't regulate the issue that the caller raised where a person may buy something...
NNAMDIBuy something on a food truck and then stroll over to...
NNAMDI...a table and bench at a brick-and-mortar business to eat it.
MAJETTYeah. I mean, that could be a police matter, a person unlawfully using a business' resources, but it's certainly not something...
NNAMDIWell, is there anything in the new regulations that affect the distance the trucks are allowed to operate with -- in relationship to traditional brick-and-mortar businesses?
MAJETTNo, the right -- the requirement is that they park at a legitimate space. If it's a meter, they pay the meter and remain there for so long as the meter allows. And if it's a non-savory truck, as you put it, then they could stay there no more than 10 minutes after they -- the line of customers left.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Daniel. We move on to Diana in Montgomery County, Md. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking the call. I'm delighted by the topic. I don't actually get down to D.C. much, but even at the Department of Motor Vehicles over in, I guess, in Gaithersburg, there are always three or four of these trucks lined up one right behind the other. So my question is, has any thought been given to putting into place, if not for existing trucks, at least future trucks, some kind of requirement for noise control and pollution control?
DIANAA lot of them have compressors and engines that seem to need to run the whole time to fire up whatever is going on in the trucks. And, A, it's not a very a pleasant dining experience, B, second-hand exhaust at the same time. But it would be nice to sort of mitigate some of that impact of having an engine running for the however many hours the trucks are sitting there. Any thought of that?
NNAMDIHave you had any complaints along those lines, either noise, pollution or the, I guess, dining environment?
MAJETTWe haven't had any -- I'm not aware of any complaints. At least of 2,500 comments we got, none addressed noise, pollution or the dining experience. Now, the trucks are regulated, but my agency, DCRA, they're regulated by the Department of Health, and they're regulated by the police department. So if there are complaints regarding noise, there is a noise decibel rule in the District of Columbia, and it depends on what zone you're in, what time of day dictates whether or not the decibel -- what decibel level applies.
MAJETTSo if there's a noise complaint, DCRA does have authority to enforce the noise regulation, as well as MPD. We do get complaints about noise, but I've never gotten a complaint regarding a mobile vending truck. And with respect to the dining experience, for most of the comments we get and from, you know, what we see, people like them, the trucks. They seem to, you know, gravitate toward them wherever they are.
MAJETTSo we just haven't got those kinds of complaints yet, but we'll certainly, if that's the issue, we'll certainly look at that. And these are proposed regulations, so for the final regulations, that's something we'll take a look at.
NNAMDIAny rules that are all new rules that would affect litter from trucks or from their customers? Have you had any complaints about that?
MAJETTWe have had complaints about litter, and there is a rule that requires the trucks to maintain, you know, litter control so that the surrounding areas aren't littered. That is a complaint that we get, especially from the brick-and-mortal establishments.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Diana. We move on to Josh in Washington, D.C. Josh, your turn.
JOSHHi. I own a food truck in D.C. called PORC. And, you know, first of all, I'd like to say thank you for issuing these or publishing these new proposed regulations. The one thing that you brought up, Mr. Majett, that I found worrisome was that my understanding is the vending development zones are in there to create more opportunities for vendors, that that is the specific purposes, to have vendors, to create more of these innovative small businesses.
JOSHAnd you said something about limiting food trucks in particular areas downtown, and that seems to fly in the face of what, my understanding, is the vending development zone is supposed to be. But that is our concern, that they could be used to limit vending and to limit consumer choice and really, you know, take out competition, whether that's the restaurant association behind it or the building owners association. That is our concern that we're being...
JOSH...there are entities that are trying to limit us on the streets of D.C.
NNAMDIWell, Josh, stay on the line for a second because I'm going to ask Nicholas Majett to take us back to the process for creating a development zone and what the criteria are going to be to use to determine how they're created. There is obviously some concern from people like Josh and other vendors that the process could be gained by more powerful restaurant businesses to basically bully trucks out of neighborhoods where they don't want them. That's your concern, isn't it, Josh?
JOSHYeah, that is. Thank you.
MAJETTWell, there has to be a regulatory process. We have restrictions on, for example, the number of liquor licenses we issue. The neighborhood is -- gets the opportunity to weigh in on whether or not a liquor license is issued to an establishment. The advisory neighborhood commissioners get to weigh in, and therefore, a great weight on whether or not a liquor license should be issued. And there's a hearing -- there's a board that hears those concerns and makes a decision. So it's not an arbitrary or capricious decision.
MAJETTIt's a decision based on the number of businesses that exists and the impact they have on the surrounding community. So I don't think the development zones would necessarily restrict mobile vendors. They could increase mobile vendors. It would be a zone where they would recognize mobile vendors, allow mobile vendors, but it'll just be in a way that you regulate and, you know, look at all the varying factors -- the impact on the community, impact on businesses that exists, impact on visitors.
MAJETTSo there has to be some controls and some regulations, but I don't think the development zones would decrease the amount of mobile vendors. In fact, it may increase, but certainly it wouldn't be an arbitrary and capricious process.
JOSHI understand -- you know, I appreciate your comments. You know, I think the important thing is making sure that these vending development zones aren't used by powerful associations that don't agree with mobile vending. You know, the issue for me is that is if we're trying to create a better, more vibrant city, food trucks have become a great way to make this a better city, to make this a more attractive city, to provide more consumer choice.
JOSHAnd the issue of, you know, the vending development zone is that, frankly, you know, if we're talking about increasing vending for mobile vendors in any given area, then that's going to have to include more parking spots or us parking on the sidewalks, which is obviously ridiculous. So our concern is that the only direction that the vending development zones can be taken with regards to our innovative businesses is that there is a decrease in us.
NNAMDIJosh, I'd like you to hold on the line for a second because we're getting another call here from Lynne in Washington, D.C. Lynne happens to be of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan D.C. So, Lynne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. LYNNE BREAUXGood afternoon, Kojo and Mr. Majett. And as I've said many times, this really is quite the controversial issue, and the apparent venom from the vending community against the association and some others is surprising. We support vending. We support entrepreneurs. Most of our membership is independent operators. A lot of our members are opening trucks, so we're fully supportive. We certainly appreciate the effort that Mr. Majett and his team has put into this, but the controversy just abounds. You know, one question I do have is that...
NNAMDIAnd this, of course, is Lynne Breaux. I forgot to mention your last name.
BREAUXYes. Considering the micromanagement and our public space in general, this is -- it seems to be a regulatory scheme which places very limited restrictions on mobile vending. And I use this term all the time. There are 18 different patio reviews -- I'm sorry, agency reviews for outdoor dining space. Should I open a patio? And then I keep hearing about the consumer, the consumer, consumer many times once a patio opens sooner than it takes to get a patio outdoor dining license in the District. So it just seems a little uneven.
MAJETTYeah. Well, first of all, with respect to the amount of sign-offs for a patio permit, I will say that the mayor has directed me to streamline the permitting process. So, for example, just a few days ago, we went online with being able to apply for nine categories of business licenses online. You can apply online, pay online and print your license online. We're looking at the number of signoffs, for example, for patio permits.
MAJETTWe're working with Department of Transportation, the Health Department to streamline that process. So in the near future, you'll see that there'll be less sign-offs required, and that the process will be streamlined under this mayor's direction. Now, with respect to vendors, we heard the brick-and-mortar arguments. We've heard the mobile vendor arguments. We've heard the sidewalk vendor arguments.
MAJETTAnd we thought we came up with a set of regulations that strikes a balance between all the concerns. And we're not going to please all the groups 100 percent, but we think we've gone a long way. It's striking a balance and a fair balance.
NNAMDIAnd I expect that, Lynne Breaux, your organization and others will be weighing in on this as it comes before the City Council.
BREAUXOh, there's no question about that. It really has been, like I said, quite the controversial issue, and we hope to come to some resolution and work with the truck vendors towards some resolution that maybe not please everybody, but mostly everybody, including the consumer.
NNAMDILynne Breaux, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. Josh, I'm going to ask you to stay on the line because we have a caller waiting who has a question that you may want to respond to. In the meantime, you can also join the conversation at 800-433-8850 as we talk about proposed mobile food truck regulations. Do you regularly grab lunch from the food trucks that do business in D.C.?
NNAMDIWhy do you choose the food they serve over the food you can get from a brick-and-mortar business? Call us, 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our food Wednesday conversation with Nicholas Majett, director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. We still have Josh on the line who owns a food truck, but I'd like to go to Sha (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Sha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHAHi. So I'm from a family who's owned brick-and-mortar restaurants in D.C., well, my whole entire life. And I remember when the mobile trucks really took off, and one of the main concerns that -- between my father and his colleagues and other people in the food cart business and things like that was more -- it was not the fact that they were around, but more the fact that they only pay the flat sales tax fee, not a sales tax on each item.
SHAAnd that takes a lot from our sales 'cause 10 percent sales tax, we have to put that into our pricing and things like that with -- think of that. People are going to pay the 10 percent sales tax where he -- where the mobile trucks does not have to have that in the pricing.
SHAI was wondering if you guys were talking about that at all or -- I know I missed a part of the conversation.
NNAMDIWell, no, Sha. We are going to be talking about it right now, so thank you very much for your call. I'm going to first go back to Josh. Josh, you heard what Sha had to say. Allow me to add to that, that you don't need to sink cost into labor, real estate or permits the way brick-and-mortar restaurants do. What do you say in response to that?
JOSHYou know -- and she brings a very good point, and this is often brought up in conversations about food trucks. There is a flat vendor's tax in lieu of sales tax, I believe. If you talk to majority of vendors, we'd be more than happy to do the sales tax as long as we could be treated like any other business. And with regards to what I'm saying, currently the way that licensing works for vending vehicles is that you cannot license your business entity or my LLC or a partnership as owning the business vending license. It is to a sole person.
JOSHSo that -- if I'm out of town or unable to work on a given day, my vehicle can't go out. And you wouldn't expect the restaurant owner to sit there, take every transaction that happens in his restaurant, and you shouldn't expect the same with us. We would be more than happy to, you know, join in with the sales tax. And this is an issue -- but this is a tax on the consumer. This is not a tax on trucks.
JOSHBut if the city would like to treat us like any other business, I'm sure you'd find that many of us would not have an issue. And once that that did have an issue, you know, I would agree with Sha that that's a questionable thing. As far as having other expenses, I have a -- I'm required to keep a kitchen in D.C. I have it right in the Shaw neighborhood, right near Howard University. I pay property taxes there. I pay insurance there. I have a vehicle that is 23 years old this year. It loves to break down on me.
JOSHYou know, we have lots of expenses. The amount of days that I haven't been able to serve because, you know, a tire is flat or my battery is dead, you know, there are expenses that people really don't see about food trucks.
JOSHAnd we want to be just as much of a part of the community. And I would invite Sha to come to the brick-and-mortar restaurant that I'm planning on opening later this year. You know, that's the end goal for many of us food truck owners is we want to have brick-and-mortars, too.
JOSHWe would love to join the restaurant association, but we don't feel welcomed by these associations because they're trying to put us out of business.
NNAMDIOK, Josh. Thank you very much for your call and for having the patience to respond to Sha's comments. Are you, at all, thinking of changing this tax structure on mobile food trucks, Nick Majett?
MAJETTWell, the sales tax that has been mentioned is within the jurisdiction of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. They do impose a flat fee in lieu of sales tax, which has been in existence for some time. And the Council, Councilmember Jack Evans currently has a bill pending in the Council that would require vendors to pay a sales tax. So that may happen. It may not happen. But the caller is correct that there is a flat tax.
MAJETTAnd also, there -- as both callers suggest and they both are diametrically opposed, D.C. -- the brick-and-mortar stores have certain advantages, and mobile vendors have certain advantages and disadvantages. That's just the way it is, you know, in a free market.
NNAMDIJosh, thank you very much for staying with us. We move on now to Gavin (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Gavin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Gavin. Your turn. Gavin, I'm going to put you on hold. I think Gavin may have walked away from the telephone for a while and is likely to come back. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you would like to join this conversation.
NNAMDIWhere do you think food trucks and restaurants are most directly engaged in competition in Washington, D.C.? What kind of customers do you think they're competing for? What do you think food trucks and street food contribute to the cultural fabric of a city like Washington, D.C.? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Don in Washington: "I think the issue of food truck diners sitting at other establishments' tables is not only the responsibility of the food truck operator and restaurant owners to monitor, but the diners themselves as well. I don't think anyone would think of taking their McDonald's meal and eat it at a Domino's Pizza. It depends if that Domino's Pizza is outdoors and sitting right next to where they want to sit in the open air. You can never tell what they might do."
NNAMDIBut, Nicholas Majett, we also noticed that the new vending regulations affect photography. What are the kinds of street photography subject to regulation under the new rules? And what do the new rules call for?
MAJETTThe new rules, with respect to photography, would clarify the street photography provisions to make it clear that they are not applicable to journalists or photography enthusiasts. So a person who's a reporter, obviously, you know, taking photos, it wouldn't be applicable to that person. But a person taking pictures and then selling them on the street would be required to have a vending license, and would be treated like any other vendor.
NNAMDISo this is not something that would affect, say, the couple who just got engaged and would like to take professional photos on the mall for their save-the-date invitation, or the elementary school class trying to take the homeroom photo with the Capitol dome in the background. Would it affect those kinds of...
MAJETTOh, absolutely not. This would affect businesses that are in the business of taking photos for profit. And sometimes we see images of, let's say, the president, and you get to stand beside that cardboard image, and they take a photo and they charge you for that. Those are the kind of businesses and individuals that would fall under this law, certainly not people who are taking pictures for -- not for profit and for just purely pleasure.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Betsy Allman from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. It's rather long, so bear with me. "Your agency's current director of vending, in describing the lack of laws assigning vendors to specific sites in the 1990s, was quoted as saying, 'It was first come, first served. So, naturally, vendors were fighting for prime locations, bringing friends with baseball bats, carrying guns.'
NNAMDI"He then went on to identify three main problems: the lack of assigned spaces, the monopoly of car depots where vendors are required by law to park overnight and the homogeneity of the food being sold on the streets. It seems the marketplace has taken care of the last concern. Obviously, we have greater diversity in our food choices." But she asks, "How do you justify ignoring, in these proposed regulations, the very first important concern: in not requiring food trucks to vend from assigned spaces?"
MAJETTWell, mobile vendors are just that. They are mobile. They move around. The government is restricted, somewhat, under the commerce clause from restricting commerce. So there's a distinction. Street vendors have to get a specific location so that there is some order, peace and order. So you don't have, you know, four vendors showing up at one corner, and you're not sure who has the authority to be there. So it's important to give an individual a site-specific permit when it comes to street vendors. With respect to mobile vendors, there are a lot of restrictions.
MAJETTThere are a lot of areas in the city where they can't vend. It has to be a legal parking space. If it's meter, they have to pay the meter. So they're not unrestricted. I think that there are as many restrictions for the mobile vendors as there are for the sidewalk vendors -- in fact, probably more for the mobile vendors. Street vendors have a specific site location. They know that, every day, they can return to that particular site. A mobile vendor doesn't have that luxury.
NNAMDIOn to Gavin (sp?), again, in Washington, D.C. Gavin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GAVINHi. Are you there?
NNAMDIYes, we are.
GAVINHi. I was calling because, you know, I've been a part of the food truck discussion for a long time now. And one thing that gets me upset more than anything else is that restaurants are -- seem to have this aura of being a big, bad restaurant association. You know, there's a lot of us out there that own and run single units. You know, my family has been on Capitol Hill for almost 40 years.
GAVINWe went into a neighborhood that nobody wanted to go into at the time. And now that we're an established neighborhood, I show up in my restaurant, and I have 14 10-, 12-foot trucks in front of my restaurant. And, you know, I'd like to hear the director's response to what I tell my employees about when I stop hiring because I can't afford to keep that amount of staff on because I have 14 food trucks in front of my restaurant. You know, it's disappointing to see that nothing in the regulations limited the amount of food trucks to a block.
MAJETTWell, what I say to that is I've heard the argument that the mobile vendors have an impact on the existing brick-and-mortar establishments, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support that. We do live in a competitive market, and free enterprise prevails. The government is limited in terms of restricting business. Our goal at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is to protect the health, safety and quality of life.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt. How would a development zone in the area where Gavin's restaurant is located conceivably help or hurt Gavin and his family's restaurant?
MAJETTWell, Gavin could actually be an applicant for a development zone, and the development zone could address that very issue, the high competition that he's talking about. It would limit the number of vehicles. He could submit an application. We would coordinate with the Department of Small and Local Business Development, Department of Health, Department of Transportation, Office of Planning. He can make the argument that there are too many trucks in that area. We could come up with a plan that would limit the amount of trucks...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt and ask Gavin. Gavin, would you be able to provide evidence that the food trucks in front of your restaurant are having an adverse effect on the business that you're getting by comparing it to what you were doing before there were food trucks out there?
MAJETTAbsolutely, and I think a lot of my other fellow business owners could do the same thing. But I would just say this to the director. I understand the responsibility of DCRA, but it is to promote business. And if I'm a restaurant, and -- restaurant owner, as I am, and I'm about to open up another restaurant, which I am, and I look at the competitive landscape of D.C. -- and I know that there's a competitive market out there for restaurants.
MAJETTI find a space. I do a market analysis of that space. And then I decide to invest in that neighborhood, and in that block, as I am on the 400 block of Massachusetts Avenue, I put $2 million into a space, and then have 10 food trucks show up in front of my space once I've made that block successful. Is that fair? Is that fair market that the city should be promoting to...
NNAMDIWell, we're running out of time, but it seems to me that that's what the whole zone development process is designed to address, isn't it, Nick Majett?
MAJETTWell, yes. And the answer to his last question is the mobile vendors -- yes, it is fair that they be allowed to vend wherever they can legally park. But, again, I would say take advantage of the development zone. Submit an application, and ask that the number of mobile vendors be limited for the reasons that you've articulated.
NNAMDIGavin, thank you very much for your call. Obviously, this is just the beginning of a process that we will be following as it proceeds. But, Nicholas Majett, thank you for joining us.
MAJETTMy pleasure. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDINicholas Majett is the director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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