Want to Sell Street Food In D.C.? Caveat Vendor.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A few months back, I attempted to get a license for a vending cart that would sell homemade Italian goods. In doing so, I found the District's bureaucratic hurdles to be remarkably discouraging. I realized that, unlike New York and Los Angeles, where you can get cheap, interesting food right on the street, the District has seemingly forged an alliance with chains such as Cosi, Chop't and Potbelly's, quasi-restaurants that pay much higher quarterly fees to the city than carts would. Consequently, the street life is remarkably dull, lunch options are usually whittled down to two or three options (all chains), and vendors almost exclusively sell pretzels and hot dogs.

Why is this?

Well, the city's licensing process for carts is a practice in futility. To begin with, the city is constantly placing moratoriums on the issuing of licenses. Officials call them "mini moratoriums," but they are indefinite, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, applicants are told that they must buy carts and have them inspected before their applications can be processed. This doesn't mean before they get their licenses; it means before the application for a license can even be entered into the system. Most carts cost at least a couple of thousand dollars. Some cost as much as $10,000. It's a risky purchase, considering that the license hasn't been granted yet. This is especially true for immigrants, who account for the bulk of vendors in any city.

One day, I talked with John Rider, who owned a very successful burrito cart in town. He told me that it is simply not worth it to vend in the District, and that the city has it out for vendors. The rules and regulations are staggering and restrictive, he said, and there are hundreds on the waiting list for vending locations. Most of the people who are lucky enough to get licenses never end up doing business, he told me.

In Ballston, a young Neapolitan man has opened a great new cart that sells fried pizzas, doughnuts, Italian rice balls and daily specials. The reason Pupatella is in Ballston and not in the District? Because in the District, he couldn't even get his idea off the ground.

-- Vinnie Rotondaro


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