D.C. to Spice Up Its Vending Variety

Carlos Guardado makes a burrito at 17th and K streets NW. D.C. officials are pushing for more varied vendor offerings of food, artwork and gifts.
Carlos Guardado makes a burrito at 17th and K streets NW. D.C. officials are pushing for more varied vendor offerings of food, artwork and gifts. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

In New York City, street vendors sell goat-meat tacos, sour-plum slushes, mini egg rolls, chocolate egg creams and crepes -- and that just covers the food. In the District, the choice often comes down to hot dogs and handbags.

Not everyone is happy with the paltry pickings. D.C. officials are unveiling an overhaul of this monotonous landscape over the next year and a half. They are blunt about what they feel is a big yawn, a pox on Washington's image.

"We're an international city, and we've got the crummiest vending in the world," said Joe Schilling, an official with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agency that issues vending licenses. "We need to be providing our customers -- our residents and our tourists -- some flexibility in what they see, what they eat."

The city surveyed 480 people who live and work in the District and found a yearning for more variety: 82 percent said they would buy from street vendors "if they sell something different," Schilling said.

Lunch was very much on their minds. They reeled off Thai, Lebanese and African foods; gyros and beef patties; more vegetarian options. And baked potatoes.

"Somebody has a thing for deep-fried Snickers," said DCRA spokeswoman Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, reading from the surveys. "And they want breakfast carts: They say that with three exclamation points."

The overhaul also aims to avoid the vending system's Wild West past.

In 1998, the District was a lively bazaar with 3,000 vendors working the streets. Too lively: Spots were filled each day, first-come first-served, and fistfights broke out among vendors vying for prime locations. Some landed in jail.

"People were hurt; they were assaulted; they were put out of business by people who didn't want them there," said Sam Williams, DCRA's vending manager, describing vendors who arrived as early as 3 a.m. to secure spots.

The scene got so out of hand that the D.C. Council slapped a moratorium on new vending licenses. The number of vendors plunged to 650 in eight years, largely through attrition, before the moratorium ended last month.

Vendors nowadays are fairly evenly split between sellers of merchandise and food. The lack of variety in offerings is due in part to the moratorium, Robinson said. With no new licenses issued, "they haven't had any competition."

Under the new plan, each vendor for the first time will be issued a permit guaranteeing a specific location for a not-yet-determined fee. Existing vendors will get first rights to their current spots.

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