D.C. to Spice Up Its Vending Variety

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006; A01

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.

The District also will be trying things no one else has, becoming the first urban area to map out vending sites citywide, Williams said. Smart cards will be given to the vendors, encoded with data shared with the District's tax and revenue agency and the Health Department.

New vendors will be encouraged to introduce interesting and varied wares -- not only different foods, but also folk art, gifts and luxury items, magazines, DVDs and even inventions. To help these new "incubator businesses" succeed, classes will be offered in marketing, Robinson said.

"This is an incredible opportunity for the District to create home-grown businesses," she said, comparing street vending to shopping kiosks at suburban malls. "This is not about setting up your table outside and selling stuff. This is about developing a small business."

DCRA officials consulted with their counterparts in seven U.S. cities -- Miami, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and Portland, Ore. -- about what to implement and what to avoid. They cannot cap the number of licenses they grant; court decisions have upheld such restrictions as a violation of the First Amendment.

"We won't cap them in any way, shape or form," said Williams, who believes the number of licensed vendors might reach 3,000 again eventually.

Robinson said the DCRA also will not limit how many vendors can sell a certain item. But she added that "there will be a natural cap at some point, because some of the locations will be less attractive than others."

Existing vendors eye the coming changes with a degree of wariness.

Issa Camara has occupied a section of sidewalk on L Street NW near Connecticut Avenue for 11 years, selling athletic shoes and purses. The prospect of all the changes "makes me nervous," he said, "because I don't know all the rules yet." But he welcomes a more organized system.

"Back in the day, it was nothing but fights," he said.

Tam Nguyen, who sells hot dogs across the street, said he has made "a good living" there for 10 years, selling snacks to workers from nearby offices. He is not keen on having more competitors or more fees. "But it'll be okay," he said, handing a bag of chips to a customer.

DCRA officials say it is difficult to place a monetary value on the current vending system. Each vendor pays between $200 and $600 for a two-year license, and DCRA collected about $274,000 in March, when it renewed the licenses of existing vendors, Williams said. An additional $1.1 million is collected annually in taxes, penalties and interest.

"Those two numbers will be going up dramatically if we add 1,500 new licenses, as we expect, within the next year," he said.

The agency is reaching out to new vendors, having held seven orientation meetings -- in six languages -- since the moratorium's end. About 60 people attended each meeting, Williams said; more meetings will be held later.

And what about the future customer? Mark Lutz, who works for a downtown law firm, was having his first D.C. street-vending experience the other day, eating a vegetarian burrito from Carlos Guardado's cart at 17th and K streets NW.

"Today, I didn't have much time, so this is perfect," Lutz said, peeling foil from his lunch and contemplating a future of varied choices.

"Kabobs would be good," he said. "Something other than a hot dog."

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