February 19, 2016

Beyond Lunch: D.C. Food Truck Owners Are Working Hard On Policy And Parties

By Tayla Burney

Food trucks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Food trucks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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Che Ruddell-Tabisola, photo courtesy DMVFTA

Earlier this week we talked food trucks. Turns out, there’s a – literal – food truck convention coming to the District soon. I talked with Che Ruddell-Tabisola, the executive director of the DC, Maryland and Virginia Food Truck Association (DMVFTA) about that upcoming event, how this region became a hotbed of food truck policy activism, and his start in the industry.

What made you decide to start a food truck in the first place and had you expected to become so active in policy around the business model when you did?

The BBQ Bus truck was my husband Tadd’s baby, originally. I went to graduate school in Brussels where I got a master’s degree in international conflict analysis and he was really supporting us that whole time. The idea was when we got back to the states, and I got my first real job, we could stop living off credit cards and then he could pursue his passion. He decided he wanted to go to culinary school because some of the fondest memories he has are of being a small boy in the kitchen with his grandfather at the restaurant his family ran.

Tadd and some friends bought a smoker part way through school and started smoking chickens and other meats on weekends. It got more serious and we originally wanted to do a brick and mortar shop, but, really, one of the reasons we had the boom in food trucks to begin with was the recession. There was a group of people who wanted to be restaurateurs who couldn’t get access to the capital you need to do that. That’s how we got started.

One of the unique things about D.C. scene –well there’s a lot, but street vending has always been part of the fabric of the American economy. In the U.S. more broadly, it’s long been a way for new immigrants people without means to carve path of economic mobility. So we have a lot of that in D.C. but we also have a lot of former professionals in other fields launching second or third careers. Kirk of Captain Cookie, who was on the show earlier this week, for example was in emergency communications. The founder of Sweet Bites, Susan Panetta, was at the EPA for 30 years. The guys from both Curbside Cupcake and Red Hook Lobster Pound were both lawyers, so we have people with all these varied background and mine was in politics and LGBT activism. But having all these diverse resumes brings different skills to build the association.

You spend a lot of time off your truck, lobbying lawmakers in various parts of the region. What are you working on now?

Now is a very exciting time. In Maryland there’s a very simple bill up in the Assembly that would allow reciprocity, basically allowing counties to recognize each other’s health permits. As it is now, it’s about $500 to get one in each county, and you’re meeting the same basic requirements each place. It’s a very simple bill that aims to cut some red tape and save vendors some money.

And a year ago at this time food trucks had been banned in Prince George’s County and we worked with the council to come to a deal to let them come back. In Richmond, we’re working on a bill to allow some vending on VDOT-owned lots. And in Prince William they’re bringing up-to-date private property and special event regulations – they had a law that you couldn’t vend more than 90 minutes. So we’re working with Maryland Food Truck Association and lots of folks on the local level who are really doing good work on these issues as well.

You’re getting ready to step down from your role as leader of the organization. What has surprised you most about your time as a leader in the group?

For about four years I was a volunteer, then about two years ago became our first paid staffer. We’ve become more than we ever imagined. It used to be about 17 of us meeting in Duffy’s at really tense, contentious moments. We were worried our businesses might get shut down any minute. What we’ve seen since is that our work’s reach and effect has gone farther than we’d thought it might.

What we’re seeing across the region is the overall climate for food trucks and any mobile entrepreneur is so much friendlier. We’re talking in Richmond about expanding the tax base and creating jobs. In Maryland we’re talking about ways to address food deserts. The things we started talking about in D.C. are sparking conversation and change around the region.

We learned Wednesday on the show that D.C. is a unique and really popular city when it comes to food trucks. Is that why we play host to the Food Truck Convention?

Given our location in the nation’s capital it’s a great place and destination. And the convention – coming up March 12-13 – this year will include international attendees. We’ve actually got the head of Deutschland food trucks coming in from Germany. We could be a home of an international gathering of the minds to talk about mobile vending.

Justin Vitarello, who was a founder of Fojol Brothers has said that mobile retail, food and services may be the last bastion for mom-and-pop shops.

So, is there any part of this convention that might appeal not just to food truck owners and operators but also to, for example, hungry public radio producers?

Yeah, we’re doing something new this year. If you come to the convention you get tickets to our Shindig as part of the package. But we’re making it so people who aren’t interested in the workshops and training sessions can also purchase tickets to just that event. You get to taste cuisine from three food trucks, enjoy some awesome live music, and we’ll have the mobile mall with six retails shops setup.

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