The District published the latest round of vending regulations late last Friday, ahead of a long holiday weekend, which may have been convenient for city officials, but it was tough on those affected by the proposed regs. Food truck owners and at least one business improvement district executive had as many questions as opinions about the rules that could determine the future of street food in Washington.
Many of the questions focus on the District Department of Transportation’s role in creating Mobile Roadway Vending locations — these yet-undetermined spots throughout the city where at least three food trucks would be allowed to vend for four hours, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
“We identified some areas where we need more information before we take a position on the regulations,” said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association.
“We have questions about the Department of Transportation's new authority and the proposed vending zones. So we asked to meet with DDOT to ask for clarification. However, because today being the holiday, we won’t be able to connect with them by phone or in person to set up that meeting until tomorrow.”
Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle business improvement district, which includes the popular food-truck destination of Farragut Square, expressed a similar viewpoint. “I do have questions, obviously,” she told All We Can Eat. “But it’s Monday. It’s Columbus Day, and it’s a holiday.”
Like the food truck association, the Golden Triangle has questions about the Mobile Roadway Vending locations, or MRVs, and DDOT's role in creating them and managing them. “That’s where a lot of my questions are,” Agouridis said. “How would that [process] work? What does that look like?”
Among the concerns of both BIDs and food trucks is the idea that MRVs would be managed on a first-come, first-served basis. In other words, all trucks permitted for MRVs would have to battle for the precious few spots in high-traffic locations such as Union Station, Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza and Farragut Square. This could lead to the kind of two-fisted chaos that once ruled Washington streets, when the stationary food cart vendors literally traded blows over the best locations.
“You’re going to have 20 trucks fight for three spots at Farragut Square?” said Josh Saltzman, co-owner of the PORC truck and its brick-and-mortar spinoff, the Kangaroo Boxing Club. “How do we think that’s going to come out?”
There were also concerns that unless DDOT creates enough MRV spaces for all permit holders, some truck owners might pay the $480 quarterly fee and receive none of its benefits.
“How many of these spaces is DDOT going to establish?” asked Doug Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound D.C. truck and a telecommunications regulatory lawyer. “If it’s something less than the number of [permitted] trucks. . . you’ve got a scarcity problem.”
Turf wars and supply-side issues aside, some food truck owners had concerns about DDOT’s power in determining these MRV locations — without, apparently, the ability to appeal or contest the agency’s decision-taking.
“What is the process that DDOT will go through to identify these spaces?” said Red Hook Lobster Pound’s Povich. “I think it’s safe to say that we’d like to see more transparency on that rather than going into the black hole of DDOT.”
“I get the feeling that you could comply with all these” rules about what constitutes a proper MRV location, Povich added, “and DDOT could say, “Nah, we don’t want you to have one there.’”
Such a scenario is what drives some food truck owners’ fears.
“I think there is an awful lot of power put in the hands of DDOT without an articulated process,” said Kristi Whitfield, co-owner of Curbside Cupcakes. “It’s concerning because we know we’re the little guy so we don’t have a lot of influence on where DDOT picks those spots.” She’s concerned that others, such as the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, would have more sway with DDOT.
Food truck owners contacted by All We Can Eat were generally happy about a number of provisions in the proposed regulations: the death of the ice cream truck rule, for starters. Under the new regs, trucks no longer would have to be hailed in order to pull over to the curb or leave when their line of customers has disappeared. Owners were pleased about the proposal to allow them to purchase one vending license for their businesses, and then they could badge individual employees on the vehicle. Previously, a licensed vendor had to be on the truck at all times, forcing the owner to work every hour or buy multiple licenses.
Overall, the food truck community was thrilled that the city didn’t restrict vending just to designated areas, like these proposed MRVs. The District plans to continue to allow trucks to vend from any legal parking spot — but under certain conditions. Among the conditions: The sidewalk next to the parking spot has to be at least 10 feet wide in the Central Business District, and it must be 40 feet from a crosswalk. The trucks must leave those spaces when the meter expires or face a stiffer fine of $100. (The current fine is $25 for the same offense.)
This last condition raised red flags with a number of food truck operators, who already feel as if they are under the microscope from traffic enforcement officials.
“We already feel quite targeted,” said Whitfield of Curbside Cupcakes, noting that she pays at least $200 a month in tickets. “We’re getting more and more tickets, and some of them seem overzealous. So the idea of adding [a steeper fine] onto that. . . . It’s enough to break the back of a small business.”
“I’d like to see the city do something other than what they have been doing, which is take a completely antagonistic approach to food trucks,” added Povich.
* Read the proposed vending regulations. (The public has until Nov. 13 to submit comments.)