Roll Over, Hot Dogs

(Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In a city whose street-food scene has long been dominated by boiled hot dogs, any out-of-the-ordinary vendor cart is sure to attract attention. And not necessarily the kind the owners want.

In this case, it is a trio of Secret Service officers who descend on the stainless-steel box on wheels that two young men opened this month two blocks from the White House. On the cart's third day of business, the officers ask to see the men's identification, operating license and health department inspection. After a slight scramble, no problem. All papers in order.

That leaves an officer with one last question: "What's a shawarma?"

At Delle & Campbell's Halal Luncheonette, on the southeast corner of 14th and G streets NW, it's a Lebanese-style pita rollup of marinated spit-roasted chicken along with spicy lamb sausages and a sprinkle of parsley and onion. The price: $7. The men buy the meat at a halal butcher, meaning it conforms to Muslim dietary laws.

Delle & Campbell's is the first of 21 new food vendor carts that District officials have authorized after a nearly 10-year moratorium, in an attempt to encourage a new world of street-food options. After meeting the new requirement that all vendors have a public space permit tied to a specific location, dozens more carts are expected to open in the months ahead, selling pizza, soul food, Korean barbecue, gelato and more. After subsequent mapping surveys, officials intend to designate hundreds more sites for vendors in all commercial areas of the city.

Despite the novelty, though, on opening day at Delle & Campbell's, few people stop to read the brief menu posted on the cart below their motto, "The Vanguards of peace, love and deliciousness." Fewer still accept the invitation of co-owner Akindele Akerejah, 23, as he approaches prospective customers and asks "How you doing, Miss?" or "Have you had lunch?" Most are in a hurry and can't be bothered, saying, simply, "No."

"Being a pioneer isn't easy," says Akerejah, who shares the business with Folarin Campbell, 22.

Regulating street vendors isn't, either, which is why city officials imposed the moratorium on licenses after decades of problems, including fights over choice locations and uneven collection of taxes and fees. Through tighter regulation, the new program, launched last fall by three city departments -- Transportation, Health, and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs -- aims to promote small-business development, increase revenue and, perhaps most important for the downtown lunch-seeking crowd, encourage menu diversity.

Of the approximately 200 preexisting licensed sidewalk food vendors in the city, a stark decline from the 1,200 that operated before the moratorium went into effect, only three do not sell hot dogs or the half-smokes that some call Washington's regional specialty.

Since the city put out a call for applicants six months ago, more than 300 prospective vendors of food or merchandise have applied for permits in a 120-block area of downtown. So far, the city has offered 143 sites by lottery in the central Business Improvement District, including locations on F Street, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Of those, 59 were chosen by applicants who propose to sell food, but only 21 will feature something other than the same old wieners in buns.

Apparently, despite efforts to encourage more diverse foods, the hot dog habit is hard to break.

"When I first came here from Portland [Oregon] in 2003, I said, 'Why are these people only selling hot dogs?' " says Sam Williams, the city's vending project coordinator. "In other cities you have amazing foods, like organic vegan burgers, coming from carts. It was so puzzling to me." The answer he eventually settled on: "There's a fear of the unknown."

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