New regulations could usher in a golden era of street vending

September 20, 2013

The final vending regulations were published today in the D.C. Register, a quiet culmination to a vociferous battle over street food that stretched back years and required countless hours to (sort of) settle disputes between bricks-and-mortar restaurants and their mobile counterparts. Some of the regulations will officially go into effect on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

The new vending regulations will bring more variety to popular squares such as Farragut, where the same trucks often vend. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The new vending regulations will bring more variety to popular squares such as Farragut, where the same trucks often vend. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

While there are still questions about how the new regs will be implemented — prime among them is how the lottery for the mobile roadway vending zones will work — there are also some changes that you can expect to see, both on the streets and behind the scenes. Among them:

• Starting Nov. 1, food truck owners will take part in a monthly lottery to secure a special multi-hour permit to a prime downtown location, officially ending the low-grade warfare that occurred each weekday for spots near, for example, Farragut Square. The District is testing its so-called mobile roadway vending zones at eight popular locations around the city, including Farragut and Metro Center, hoping to fine-tune the system before rolling out more MRVs.

• Because of the MRVs, food truck operators will no longer be forced to rise before dawn, prep their food and rush down to Farragut Square to take over a parking spot previously held for them by a placeholder vehicle. This should be good for consumer choice. For too long, the same trucks — those better at gaming the system, not better at producing a quality lunch — have controlled the lunch options at Farragut. The mobile roadway vending zones will bring more variety to some of these popular public feeding troughs.

• The food available from sidewalk vendors (remember those?) will venture beyond the half-smokes, hot dogs, chips and candy currently hawked on public walkways. The regs allow the District to start permitting new sidewalk locations, meaning you should begin to see lunch (and merchandise) carts with more ambition. Expect more international foods to start appearing on our sidewalks.

• Along the same lines, mobile vending will expand beyond the rolling kitchens that now roam the streets. Look for trucks that offer other services. Need a haircut? You might be able to amble to the curb and get a trim. A shoe shine? Same thing. How about a new blouse for that surprise dinner invitation? Go to the streets!

• The new regs will allow food trucks to continue to flourish and grow. Che Ruddell-Tabisola, political director for the freshly renamed District Maryland Virginia Food Truck Association, says that 14 trucks have already evolved into permanent or pop-up businesses. The rules will make it possible for others to do the same. How so? Because the D.C. Council eased restrictions placed on trucks in earlier draft regulations, the vendors will be mostly free to roam, even if they don't win a lottery space at an MRV location. "Because it preserves that central tenet" — mobility — "the industry will continue to thrive," Ruddell-Tabisola says.

• At the same time, the MRVs will likely force trucks with mid-grade fare to either improve their food or find a new line of work. These vendors will no longer be able to monopolize popular public spaces just by being the first to park on, say, Farragut Square; such tactics, no doubt, artificially inflated their sales. They will need to attract customers who aren't willing to purchase mediocre food just because it's close by. And just as important: Quality trucks that had lost their taste for fighting over popular lunch spots (and instead developed markets elsewhere for their fare) will start appearing again downtown.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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