HAVE YOU visited Farragut Square or L’Enfant Plaza or Franklin Square at lunchtime recently? The burgeoning of Washington’s food truck industry is extraordinary. The mobile kitchens are inventive, dazzlingly varied, amazingly popular — urban life at its best. Now District regulators are threatening to choke their growth.
Ever since the first food truck showed up at the presidential inauguration in 2009, the city has struggled with how to regulate a pioneering business that falls outside prescribed categories. Very soundly, officials required health inspections. Justifiably, they closed a loophole that allowed food trucks to evade sales tax and so gave them an unfair advantage over traditional restaurants. Reasonably, they suggest that issues about parking, traffic and trash still need to be addressed.
But rules proposed by the city administration, which will be the topic of a D.C. Council hearing on May 10, are problematic to say the least. They would create special zones throughout the city where a limited number of mobile vendors, determined by a monthly lottery, could operate. Trucks would be allowed outside these zones in metered parking spots, but requirements on distance and sidewalk space apparently would make many areas off limits. Choices offered to consumers would be reduced; food truck mobility, and thus their ability to meet and create demand, would be drastically cut back.
Food truck associations from across the country wrote a letter to the D.C. Council warning that the regulations “would transform the District overnight from a leader in mobile vending to one of the worst food-truck cities in the nation.” Some food truck operators are threatening to bolt the District for what they see as more hospitable environs in Arlington, while others fear they may go out of business.
Administration officials insist they are not seeking to discourage food trucks; they’re being misunderstood. When draft rules were proposed in January 2012, we and others were inclined to give the city the benefit of the doubt. Yet the regulations published more than a year later leave too many important questions unanswered: How many trucks might be permitted at Farragut Square, for instance, where last Friday 23 were parked and busy? Which areas of the city would be put off-limits by the inexplicable prohibition, apparently unique to the District, on vending anywhere with less than 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk?
The D.C. Council, by law, may not change the regulations but must adopt or reject them in total. That’s too bad, because the regulations aren’t all bad. They would eliminate the silly rule that requires food trucks to move on if no one is waiting in line, for example. If the regulations are rejected, it’s likely to mean another year or so before changes are made.
But if the choice is between accepting these regulations as proposed and waiting another year, we’ll wait, and so should the council. Why would the city want to snuff out success?