Finding a parking spot is the biggest business challenge, food truck owner says


Stephen Adelson , owner of the Carnivore food trucks, on location on Virginia Avenue near the State Department on Sept. 12. (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)

When Stephen Adelson entered Washington’s food truck scene 11 / 2 years ago, it was to pursue his passion for barbeque.

Adelson has more than 20 years of food industry experience — a Wharton business school graduate, he founded Hole Schmear LLC, a wholesale bagel distributor based in Bethesda. But overcrowding in D.C.’s food truck scene is proving to be a logistical challenge for him and his trucks. Finding a parking spot is such a problem, he says, that if he had known about it two years ago, he might not have entered the scene in the first place.

Adelson’s two food trucks, both called Carnivore BBQ, serve locally sourced sandwiches and coleslaw made from scratch. They are stationed during lunch time at various sites around D.C.— from L’Enfant Plaza to the State Department — as announced via Adelson’s Twitter account, @carnbbq. His pulled pork and beef brisket are well known, and he is meticulous about the 22-hour roasting process.

Like many other food truck owners, Adelson specifically chose not to open a brick and mortar restaurant to cut down on overhead costs. But for Adelson, food trucks also represented an element of “romanticism” — operating on a shoe-string and having an instant connection with his customers after introducing them to his barbeque — which he couldn’t have done in a restaurant.

Because of what he sees as D.C.’s “renaissance” — or a recent increase in the numbers of “upwardly mobile young people” — Adelson has found a thriving and loyal customer base in the city. But finding a parking spot from which to serve them has become discouragingly difficult, he said.

The biggest predictor of a day’s success is location, Adelson said. Unlike brick and mortar restaurants, food truck owners must scout out and secure new locations each day. But with so much competition for the same spots from other food trucks, it’s “harder to get that location. It’s the same pie being split into smaller pieces,” he said.

Space limitations have transformed the food truck industry into a “zero-sum game,” Adelson said. D.C. parking laws also restrict food trucks from remaining in the same spot for more than two hours, even if they’ve paid the meter, and they are never allowed to park before 9:30 a.m.

Adelson said he’s witnessed other food trucks getting $100 parking tickets for arriving minutes before 9:30, and then $25 tickets for parking for more than two hours. To beat out the competition for a prime parking spot, some food truck owners feel forced to park illegally, and just consider parking tickets the “cost of doing business,” he said.

Adelson admitted he has sometimes felt the need to drive “aggressively” to secure a parking spot for lunchtime.

He attributes the overcrowding to the low entry barrier to the food truck industry. Compared to a brick and mortar restaurant, operating a food truck is relatively inexpensive — Adelson said he feels “a couple of hundred dollars [in revenue] a day will keep you alive”, as long as you have a place to park.

Social media has also driven the growth of food trucks — “you now have the ability to reach out to customers and say where you are,” he said, referring to many food trucks’ extensive use of Twitter and Facebook to announce their times and locations.

One viable solution, Adelson said, would be a moratorium on the number of food trucks in the District. “Not because we care about competition, but because we’re knocking out each other’s brains looking for parking,” he said.

But he specifically warned against laws like those in Portland, Ore., and parts of Virginia, which have restricted food trucks to designated areas. “That’s a bad idea because it affects our ability to control our revenue stream,” he said.

Given the logistical challenges of the food truck industry, Adelson’s eye is on his next steps.

“We’re looking for what’s next. I want to promote catering, and get into organizing events, in addition,” he said. He has recently started taking his trucks to music festivals — like Abbey Road on the Potomac, a Beatles Tribute held earlier this month — which he finds more profitable and relaxed than seeking the daily lunchtime rush in the city.

“For a new food truck, the presence of regulatory agencies, the police department and competition from other food trucks — those are things you didn’t expect,” he said. “There are potholes on the road to success for a food truck.”

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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