D.C. to propose zones for food trucks

January 20, 2012

Searching for a compromise in the bitter divide between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs on Friday will propose creating “vending development zones” that would allow neighborhoods to decide how many mobile and sidewalk vendors to allow in their area.

“It’s our way to really try to make the best use of public space among street vendors and farmers markets, food trucks and bricks-and-mortar businesses,” said Helder Gil, legislative affairs specialist for the department. “It tries to force everybody into the room . . . and find something that works for everybody.”

The development zones are among many proposals in the latest vending regulations, which the department is set to publish Friday in the D.C. Register after spending the past 19 months wading through 2,500 public comments and talking to those involved in the turf war over selling food to the public. Current regulations, on the books for 30 years, often do not account for the new era of mobile vending. The proposed regulations would require the D.C. Council’s approval to become law.

The proposals include one other notable addition: a change to the “ice cream truck” rules that now require mobile vendors to leave their location when no one is waiting in line, a condition that has led police to force food trucks to move. The proposed rules would allow food trucks to pay the parking meter and remain in that spot until the meter expires. That change, however, wouldn’t apply to ice cream and other dessert-oriented trucks, which would be allowed to stay in their location for only 10 minutes if there are no waiting customers.

The new parking rule would be “a huge improvement in the regulations,” said Kristi Whitfield, co-owner of Curbside Cupcakes and executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association. “That alone is going to make it a lot more reasonable for food trucks to operate their businesses. . . . I think that is a tremendous step forward for the city.”

As an owner of a truck that sells cupcakes, however, Whitfield said she doesn’t like the separate rules for savory and sweet vendors.

The DCRA’s Gil says different rules are necessary to allow savory food trucks to prepare for service at a parking spot, a somewhat lengthy process that ice cream and dessert trucks don’t require.

Of all the proposed rules, the vending development zones could be the ones that bring the warring sides together. Under the regulation, business associations, community organizations or District governmental agencies could submit proposals to create such a zone, in which the number of sidewalk vendors, food trucks and even farmers markets would be capped. The idea is to reduce the over-saturation of venders in certain areas.

“It’s not a good idea to have 18 to 20 trucks on Farragut Square on Fridays,” Gil said. “There’s just too much there.”

Initial responses to the vending development zone concept were lukewarm. Andrew J. Kline, spokesman for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said he wasn’t sure how the zones would solve the conflicts involved in managing the District’s public spaces for both in-line restaurants and mobile food trucks. For starters, he noted, the zones still would not address the food trucks’ need for parking spots that stretch beyond the two-hour limits.

Edward S. Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, said he was loath to comment on the regulations without seeing them, but he reiterated DC Map’s position that food trucks are “illegal, period, the way they have been operating.”

When the D.C. Council approved the Vending Regulation Act of 2009, Grandis noted, council members did not address modern food trucks. “If the statute was written and did not take into consideration food trucks,” he said, then “there’s no statutory authority for them.”

Gil countered that it was never the council’s intention to eliminate mobile vending.

Even the D.C. Food Truck Association isn’t sure about the development zone concept, particularly after the D.C. Department of Public Works created a two-person team to crack down on vehicles that exceed the two-hour meter limits. Some owners of food trucks say the city is unfairly targeting their vehicles in an unofficial crackdown on mobile vending. “If I wondered if I was the little guy, I don’t wonder anymore,” said Whitfield, the association’s executive director.

“I want there to be a clearly articulated objective process so everybody understands” why a vending development zone is approved and why one isn’t, Whitfield said. “If they get it or they don’t get it, everyone understands why.”

Whitfield’s fears are based on politics and power, she noted. The bricks-and-mortar restaurants have powerful groups, such as the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and various business improvement districts, doing their bidding. The trucks have only a small, poorly funded association. “Somebody that wants to limit competition would use the vending development zone to shut trucks out of an area that is popular with trucks,” Whitfield said.

Or what if someone wanted to create a vending development zone for Ward 2, which is essentially downtown Washington, and set a limit on the number of trucks? Whitfield wondered whether that would be possible under the new rules. “If someone were to apply for one, we’d have to figure that out,” responded Gil. “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

Some of those questions will be hashed out over the coming months. The DCRA will take public comments on the proposed regulations over the next 30 days, with a possible extension beyond that. Gil said he is hoping that the D.C. Council passes the new regulations this year.

“This is just the start of the next long stretch, and it’s going to be a fight,” Gil said. “We’re never going to [make] everyone happy.”

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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