D.C. food truck vendors, no longer fighting for parking, praise new regulations

December 2, 2013

In days past, if Lily Habtom wanted a spot at Farragut Square, the owner of Lilypad on the Run would have to rise at 6 a.m., prepare her dishes and rush downtown to begin the weekday scrum for a parking space at the popular food truck location. She would have to fight not only with competitors but also with officers quick to slap a $100 ticket on her windshield if she slipped into a space before the rush hour ended at 9:30 a.m.

On Monday, however, Habtom awoke at a leisurely 8 a.m., prepared her Ethio­pian plates and casually pulled into an assigned spot at Farragut. There was no parking ticket to put her in the red before the day began, no bumper car battles with other trucks over a spot and no worries about feeding the meter while also feeding the office workers lined up outside her Kermit-colored truck.

Monday marked the launch of the District’s plan to bring order to the most fashionable (and chaotic) food truck locations, where a law of the jungle had prevailed.

“We didn’t have to stress at all about tickets,” Habtom said between customers. “It was better than when we were fighting.”

In the past at places such as Farragut Square, passenger cars (sometimes even cabbies who might charge $25 for a prime spot) would hold spaces until food trucks arrived. Parking enforcement officers would ticket trucks less than a minute after the meters expired. And the truck operators would conduct private deals to switch parking spots and extend their vending time beyond the two hours allowed on the meters.

None of that will be necessary anymore. As part of the D.C. Council’s long, sometimes bitter battle to regulate a food truck industry that didn’t even exist before January 2009, the city implemented mobile roadway vending zones, or MRVs, which allow trucks to vend for four continuous hours without running afoul of parking laws. The District rolled out eight MRVs on Monday, including ones at Farragut Square, Franklin Square, L’Enfant Plaza and Metro Center.

The reception among food truck owners was, by and large, positive, even if MRVs debuted on a cold, overcast Monday when customers were few.

“The trucks I’ve spoken with today say it’s a much better way” of managing the industry, said Doug Povich, chairman of the DMV Food Truck Association and co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound D.C. truck. Povich was pacing Farragut on Monday, monitoring the debut of the MRV.

Last month, 115 truck owners took part in a lottery for the 95 parking spots available in the MRVs. Most of those trucks secured five separate spots for December, meaning they’ll be able to vend every weekday during the month at a designated MRV. (For example, a truck may vend Mondays at Farragut Square, Tuesdays at Union Station, Wednesdays at L’Enfant Plaza.) A few trucks had to be satisfied with only four locations during the month. Another lottery will take place this week for MRV locations in January.

“We expect an increase in the number of trucks” applying for this week’s lottery, said Vincent Parker, vending program manager for the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). But the District also has the flexibility to create more MRVs, added DCRA spokeswoman Stephanie Reich.

Only a few problems cropped up Monday. Some cars were parked in spots designed as vending zones, including a pair of federal vehicles, which were towed to nearby locations for pickup. Near the Navy Yard, some vendors complained that the MRV was not on M Street SE, where they used to park, but on a lonely stretch of New Jersey Avenue SE, said Che Ruddell-
Tabisola, political director of the food truck association. DCRA and the District Department of Transportation plan to meet Tuesday to “come up with a solution” to the site, Reich said.

The biggest problem arose at Farragut, where three Korean-themed trucks worked the same crowd. Min Ham, an employee with Korengy, said his truck typically coordinates with a competitor, Fire & Rice, to make sure both are not working the same location. “I guess the lottery system can’t separate” by cuisine, Ham said.

DCRA allows vehicles to swap days for limited reasons — say, if one truck breaks down and a vendor wants to sub in another, Parker said. DCRA may try to work out similar swaps for trucks with the same cuisine, he added.

One customer, Steve Polansky, was not pleased that a favorite truck, Fojol Bros., had not won a lottery space for Mondays at Farragut. When informed that 17 different trucks would be on the square Tuesday, and 17 more the day after that, he quickly changed his tune. “It’s great to have this variety,” he said.

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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