D.C. Food Vendors Fear War Of Hot Dogs vs. Hummus

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tucked away in a Northwest Washington alley is a junk food paradise. WG Food Distributors has everything that anyone craving street-vendor fare could want: mountains of Lemonheads and Red Hots, Utz potato chips, Diet Coke, Sprite and Oreos. And packages and packages of the company's bread and butter: hot dogs, plus buns.

Many of the city's vendors have been buying their supplies from the family that owns WG for more than 20 years. Now, the owners fear their days as major suppliers of food on the go could be in jeopardy. They might not be right -- the city says it has no interest in destroying their business. But they might not be wrong, either -- over the next few months, the city will embark on an effort to rewrite vending rules that could bring them more competition.

The D.C. Council approved legislation last week to grant Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) the authority to draw up new regulations, and a hearing is set for today.

"We would like them to voluntarily reform," said Sam Williams, the city's vending coordinator. "We prefer a soft-hand touch, but something has to happen."

About 230 licensed food vendors hit the District's streets each day in an industry that has long been filled with turf wars. But the past two years have been especially intense, as WG and others face a city aspiring to boost its vending image and competitors eager to fight to become new kids on the block.

"It's a game. We know it's a game," said Akbar Nazary, one of WG's three owners.

He and his brother Hdayathulla Gulajan have taken over the business from their brother Himmat Gulajan. They say they stand to lose everything they have worked for since moving to the United States from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. They proudly tell their story of being street vendors who sold ice cream in front of the Capitol to becoming operators of a multimillion-dollar business. WG, which they bought from a Greek family, had $4.8 million in sales last year. Now, the city wants to take it away, they say, to replace hot dogs with haute cuisine.

The older vending carts and the days of $2.50 deals for a hot dog, chips and a soda don't seem to mesh with a downtown filled with luxury condos and residents hungry for variety. In 2006, the city conducted a survey of 480 people and found that 82 percent wanted a bigger food selection.

The city's vending carts must mirror the city's diversity, Williams said, from the consumer who wants a hot dog to one who craves chicken shawarma. There's room for both, he said. But the price means unraveling and rebuilding an industry that the city helped to construct.

For decades, Washington has been a partner in the street-food industry, creating laws that require vendors to store their carts in depots, away from rodents and in areas where the carts can be properly cleaned. Under those regulations, businesses such as WG could offer vendors a place to store their carts while encouraging them to buy supplies from the company.

The WG brothers aren't surrendering without a fight. They have hired a lawyer, and the issue has fueled a feud with newer vendors. Name-calling has flown from both sides. The fear, the brothers say, is that chains such as Starbucks could take over the vending.

People on each side of the debate say they're trying to protect small businesses. But the city has already picked a winner, Nazary said. "The young guy. With the backpack," said Nazary, 37. "What's his name? Gab? Gabe?"

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