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While D.C. lawmakers seek out stricter rules for food trucks setting up shop on downtown streets, some of their suburban counterparts are cooking up regulations to make food truck operations easier. Some say the shifting policies could lead to an exodus of D.C.’s mobile vendors to places like Arlington, Va. We look at changing dynamics for food trucks in the District and the suburbs.
- Jessica Sidman Food Editor, Young & Hungry columnist Washington City Paper
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. Actually, later in the broadcast, we'll be exploring the growing graphic novel trend, but first Food Wednesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINot long ago there were only a few lone food trucks roaming Washington streets. Today more 125 trucks are serving up meals around the area. They pull up to curbsides and sell gourmet cupcakes, lobster rolls, Korean tacos. But D.C. city council members are considering new zoning rules for mobile vendors, meaning their most real estate parks and streets in D.C.'s downtown core could be subject to stricter regulations.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, across Maryland and Virginia borders local officials are looking at laws that could make their streets more food truck friendly. And it could mean that the suburbs will see more traffic from D.C. mobile eateries. Here to explain all of this is Jessica Sidman, food editor at "Washington City Paper" where she writes the "Young and Hungry" column. Jessica, thank you for joining us.
MS. JESSICA SIDMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd if you'd like to join the conversation you can call 800-433-8850. Do you eat at any food trucks in downtown D.C.? Where would you eat if those food trucks were not there? 800-433-8850. Jessica, in D.C.'s downtown core where hubs of offices create a hungry mob around the lunchtime the food truck scene seems to booming at places like Franklin Square, parts of Pennsylvania Avenue.
NNAMDIFood trucks pull up to lines of white collar workers hoping to get a kabob or barbeque sandwich. What would these parks and street corners look like under the new regulations that D.C. council members are proposing?
SIDMANSo basically under these regulations the city would create special zones, 23 zones to be exact, where a limited number of food trucks would be able to park whether it's Fairgate Square, Union Station, Friendship Heights. And there would be a minimum of three food trucks at each of these locations. They haven't said the maximum would be and if there'd be a lottery system for food trucks to buy for a parking space.
SIDMANAnd if they didn't win a spot, they would have to stay 500 feet away from these zones, which are some of the most popular vending areas in the city. And they could still park in metered spaces, but only where they at least 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk. So 10 feet not including, you know, tree boxes and lamp posts and that kind of thing.
NNAMDII'm confused already.
NNAMDIYou get the lottery, you get to be there, a minimum of three trucks are there. If you don't win the lottery or if you're interested in participating in the lottery, you have to park your food truck at least 500 feet away in a metered space that has how many feet of unobstructed sidewalk?
SIDMANTen feet in the central business district and basically what this all means is that the number of food trucks who'd be able to park in the most popular and profitable zones would be limited, how severely we have yet to see because we don't know how many would be allowed in these zones.
SIDMANBut a lot of food truck owners are not very happy about these proposed rules and they say...
NNAMDIWhat are their concerns? Because D.C. council members have been working on these regulations for some time and since the beginning there's been a lot of push back from some longtime food truck owners in the District. What are the concerns they're expressing?
SIDMANWell, if you can't get into one of these, you know, popular vending areas, you know, there, you can go out to some less crowded lunch areas, but it's hard for the trucks to make money out there. I mean, one food truck owner told me, you know, actually Friendship Heights where we are now, he'll do half the business here than he would in Franklin Square, for example.
SIDMANSo, you know, a lot of food truck owners say it could put them out of business or maybe they would head to Virginia or Maryland or elsewhere.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, should D.C. food trucks follow the same rules as brick and mortar restaurants? Tell us what you think, 800-433-8850 or shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Jessica Sidman. She is food editor at Washington City Paper. She writes the Young and Hungry column.
NNAMDID.C. still has the largest share of food trucks in this region. What is the D.C. council hoping to fix with the new zoning rules? What's broke?
SIDMANWell, they say that they're trying to balance the interests of everyone whether it's commuters looking for parking spaces of which there's a limited number or, you know, restaurants and I mean basically, you know, in the past the restaurant association of metropolitan Washington has said, you know, the overconcentration of food trucks is a disruption to public space and they want them held accountable to the same standards that brick and mortar restaurants are held accountable to.
NNAMDIIn the suburbs, some are talking about making business easier for food truck owners. Alexandria officials say they're considering lifting a ban on food trucks. Arlington County might soften restrictions on where owners can go and how long they can stay. What could those policy changes mean for food truck owners who currently operate here in the District?
SIDMANRight, well I mean, a lot depends on what exactly happens with these proposed regulations in D.C. I know that just yesterday actually Arlington County relaxed some of their parking rules so now food trucks can park for, I believe, it's two hours instead of one hour before moving locations.
SIDMANAnd they did some other things that kind of relaxed the rules and, you know, some of the food truck operators that I've spoken to have said just with the hassle of parking in D.C. and everything and, you know, the potential threat of these regulations they've already started moving their trucks to Virginia, for example.
NNAMDISome complain that parking inspectors in D.C. prey on them like hawks, that's what Doug Povich of Red Hooks Lobster has said. So he started sending at least one of his trucks to Virginia. Let's hear what Ann, in Washington D.C. has to say. Ann, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
ANNI just think it's really outrageous what the council is doing. I mean, food trucks should be inspected so they're not making people sick and they should pay taxes, but, I mean, I think that the council seems to be trying to put a bunch of them out of business because they provide competition for the restaurants and the restaurant association contributes money to the council campaign. So it just really annoys me. It seems like a very bad precedent.
NNAMDIWell, the council opened up the regulations to public comment earlier this month. Jessica, how might community output influence how the council moves forward?
SIDMANYou know, I'm not a government reporter so I can't really speak to that, but I guess, you know, it is worth mentioning also that the mayor's office, which has really pushed these regulations, has said repeatedly, you know, they don't want to put food trucks out of business and they are trying to create some opportunities for food trucks.
SIDMANFor example, these regulations would open up 70 spots around the National Mall that previously are, you know, home to those big white trucks that sell t-shirts and ice cream and all of that. And other projects like St. Elizabeth's in Ward 8, they plan to have, set aside parking for food trucks there as well.
SIDMANYou have written that Pedro Ribeiro, the spokesperson for Mayor Vincent Grey, says he thinks the threats of shutting or moving away are hyperbole. He said the last thing officials want is for food trucks to go out of business. Well, let's hear what a food truck owner has to say about that. Here is Josh, in Washington D.C. Josh, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JOSHHow are you doing, Kojo? You know, I think the biggest problem...
NNAMDIWell, Josh, what kind of truck do you own?
JOSHI own the pork food truck and I also own, am one of the owners of Kangaroo Boxing Club in Colombia Heights.
NNAMDIGo ahead Josh, yes.
JOSHSo I have a different perspective than a lot of people because I understand the argument of brick and mortars and I understand the arguments of food trucks. The biggest issue with this battle over regulations that's been happening the last couple of years is that it's more about limiting competition than about public safety and that's what regulations should really be about.
JOSHAnd supposed hyperbole that Pedro Ribeiro talks about is not hyperbole at all. When you take 150 food trucks or somewhere in that region that are operating every day in the District and you say, all right, there's going to be maybe 30, 40 spots downtown, but you have to enter a lottery to get one of those spots.
JOSHIf you don't win that lottery, you're shut off from the central business district or you're restricted to 10 percent or less of the streets in the central business district. It's untenable way to do business and it will drive many small businesses out of business and it's unfortunate that the city and the mayor's office wasn't more willing to actually sit down with food truck owners and the other stakeholders in good faith and figure out a way that it would really work for everyone.
JOSHYou know, where everyone would be losing a little something, but it wouldn't restrict what is one of the most innovative ways to start a business in the District and what personally helped me land my own brick and mortar.
NNAMDIYou know, Jessica, who exactly do these food trucks serve? The food for some people tends to be a little expensive but who patronizes the food trucks?
SIDMANYou know, obviously lunch is huge for food trucks and, you know, I think a lot more food trucks actually would like to be able to have more late night and dinner business as well but they are somewhat restricted in that sense as well. I mean, a restaurant can serve food 24 hours a day. That's not the case for food trucks. I can't remember off the top of my head but I believe they have to end serving at around midnight or something like that.
NNAMDIHow about Josh's point that in his case having a food truck is what led him to be able to own, open a brick and mortar business to other food truck operators make the same argument?
SIDMANAbsolutely, I mean there are, we've already seen so many examples of that. There, you know, there's a very high barrier of entry to break into the restaurant business and food trucks are a way to do that. Maybe you have an interest in, you know, serving food and that's a way you can start a business at a relatively lower cost.
SIDMANAnd, I mean, we've seen Mother Ship which just opened, it's from a food truck owner. Obviously Kangaroo Boxing Club and, you know, I went through recently and I think are over a dozen places now opening from food truck owners.
NNAMDIAnd food truck owners bemoan the influence of brick and mortar store owners but the Washington Food Truck Association launched a campaign against the regulations and this will not be the first time that food truck owners rally the public behind their cause. How has the food truck community in D.C. developed a lobbying arm over the years?
SIDMANRight. So, I mean, it started out just a small group of people who met on Monday nights in the back of Duffy's Irish Pub to talk about the common issues that they, and challenges, that they shared. And in, I believe is December 2010, there was a threat of food truck moratorium and they all rushed down to the Wilson Building and said that, you know, met with council members and said, you know, we can't let this happen.
SIDMANAnd from there I think they realized, you know, we really need to get organized and since then it's become, you know, a registered 501C6 trade association. They have a registered lobbyist, there's plans to hire a fulltime executive director. So they're really trying to get as organized as other groups in town.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Josh, thank you for calling. Christy Woodfield, I'm afraid we won't be able to get to you but good luck to you, Curbside Cupcakes. Jessica Sidman is food editor at the Washington City Paper where she writes the Young and Hungry column. Jessica, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we're exploring the growing graphic novel trend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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