New regulations proposed for D.C. food trucks


Food trucks are seen on Virginia Avenue last month in the District. (Jeffrey MacMillan/THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 5, 2012

For months, supporters of Washington’s ever-growing fleet of food trucks had heard stories of high-level meetings inside the Wilson Building. They worried that D.C. officials were huddling with representatives of the business community and the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, who they believed wanted the city to flatten the tires of these “mobile interlopers” stealing their customers and cluttering their sidewalks.

On Friday, the D.C. Office of the City Administrator published the District’s latest batch of proposed vending regulations — the second attempt this year to update the 30-year-old rules that guide vending. And, on first look, the proposal seemed to confirm some vendors’ fears about their future in the District while giving hope to others.

The regulations, which require D.C. Council approval to become law, offer a two-tiered system in which food trucks would still be allowed to sell from any legal parking space , as long as they follow the posted time limits. But truck operators would also be able to apply for a permit for a specially designated spot that would allow them to vend from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Both options come with caveats. If truck operators continue to use legal parking spaces in the city, they must leave those spots when a meter expires or face a $100 fine per incident. Previously, the city charged $25 for the same offense; many food truck owners consider those tickets just the cost of doing business.

The District hopes the higher penalty will discourage vendors from squatting for hours in high-density spaces near restaurants such as Farragut Square or Metro Center, not far from where restaurateurs are trying to make their own living. But the parking spaces — at least those in the all-important Central Business District — must be adjacent to sidewalks that are 10 feet or wider.

If truck operators want the option of selling for longer periods, they can apply for a permit for the newly proposed Mobile Roadway Vending locations. (The permit will cost $480 a quarter, or roughly the price of feeding the meter for four hours a day, five days a week for three months.)The District Department of Transportation will be responsible for designating and assigning these spots. As proposed, there will be three trucks per Mobile Roadway Vending location, and only one location can be established on a city block (and only on one side of the block).

DDOT spokesman John Lisle said in an e-mail that the agency will work with “all stakeholders,” from food trucks to restaurant owners to Metro, to determine locations. “We will of course begin with the locations that are currently serving as popular locations for mobile vendors,” Lisle said. “If the current location is deemed to be a safe location (from a transportation perspective), under the standards spelled out in the proposed regulations, then DDOT will move to sign the location” as a Mobile Roadway Vending location. The spots will be operated on a first come, first served basis.

“I think depending on how they’re implementing [the new regulations], they could be workable,” said Doug Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound D.C. truck, a founding member of the D.C. Food Truck Association and a telecommunications regulatory lawyer. “It sounds like they’re not as onerous as we thought they might be. But obviously I haven’t seen them.”

Food truck proponents had been bracing for the worst. They feared the money, power and influence of the District’s established business community would crush their still embryonic industry by severely limiting the number of vending locations in the Central Business District. The D.C. Food Truck Association had even recently decided to expand into Maryland and Virginia, with the idea that if the District essentially ran them out of town, they’d still have a presence in other jurisdictions where they could continue selling pizzas, pho, kebabs, lobster rolls and lasagnas.

But the new regulations appear to walk a fine line to keep the popular trucks on the streets while still trying to satisfy the concerns of local restaurateurs who say mobile vendors squat near their eateries and poach their customers.

“I think that there’s something for everyone to like, and there’s something for everyone to quibble with,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “We’re trying to balance the interests of all the groups involved here.”

The D.C. Food Truck Association didn’t want to comment officially on the proposed regulations until it had reviewed them carefully. But Josh Saltzman, co-owner of the PORC truck and its brick-and-mortar spinoff, the Kangaroo Boxing Club, called the proposal “anti-competitive and atrocious,” noting the 10-foot sidewalk rule is a backdoor to restrict trucks downtown. (The food truck association, incidentally, has already measured the sidewalks at Metro Center, Farragut and Franklin squares and found they are all 10 feet wide.) “We’ll be looking at the regulations with an eye toward that — are these regulations prohibiting competition and choice? Or are these regulations creating an environment where they can thrive,” said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the association, which will soon change its name to the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Povich with the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck said he worries about any stepped-up enforcement of the parking meter time limits, particularly because it can take vendors 20 minutes or more to set up and another 15 minutes to break down their mobile kitchens. Trucks, he noted, were already dealing with zealous enforcement officers, who sometimes ticket vendors for one minute over the time limit. Povich says one officer has personally chased trucks down to ticket them after they’ve already left a space.

“A truck that doesn’t have a long setup time or a long breakdown period can manage their line so that at the end [of two hours], they can say, ‘Sorry, we have to be out of here at 1:30 on the dot,’ ” Povich said. “It’s going to be a problem if they can’t do that.”

Lynne Breaux, the outgoing president of Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said the group is still reviewing the proposed regulations. “The devil’s in the details, and we certainly need to review them carefully,” she said.

Some other notable changes in the proposed vending regulations include dropping the “ice cream truck rule” for all mobile vendors. Under the proposed regulations, food vendors would no longer be bound by the rules of engagement for ice cream trucks, which can pull over only when hailed and have to depart once their line of customers has vanished. (The old ice cream truck rules would no longer apply to other dessert-oriented trucks, either, as they did in an earlier draft of the vending regulations .)

What’s more, food trucks will no longer be required to always have a licensed operator on board. Instead, the proposed regulations will allow a truck owner to buy a single vending license for the business and then have hired hands with proper “vendor employee identification badges” operate the trucks. Previously, the licensed food truck owner always had to be on the vehicle — either that,or buy more licenses for others to take over when the owner wasn’t available.

One carryover from January’s proposed regulations is the concept of a “vending development zone,” in which a community or business group can propose a plan to the city to manage the public space in that particular neighborhood. So, for example, the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District could submit a plan on how to best use the area around Farragut Square for street vending, farmers markets, sidewalk vendors and the like. The zones, however, come with a restriction: They cannot be created specifically for the purpose of limiting a particular type of vendor, such as food trucks.

Finally, the proposed regulations call for creating new vending licenses for trucks dedicated to selling merchandise and services. Apparently, the District already has entrepreneurs who are interested in shining your shoes, cutting your hair and sharpening your knives.

There will be a 30-day public comment period on the proposed regulations, and the city is bracing for an avalanche of reviews, pro and con.The past two rounds of proposed vending regulations generated thousands of comments each.

“We welcome public comments,” Ribeiro said. “We want to hear what people say.”

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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