By Tim Carman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; F01
The trio of food carts at Eighth and H streets NW appears to be breaking the law. On the Fly's grasshopper-like SmartKart far exceeds the regulation length of seven feet. D.C. Central Kitchen's gleaming new Capital Cart is nowhere near the curb, let alone parallel to it, and Delle & Campbell's Halal Luncheonette is parked within sniffing distance of its two competitors, flouting the 10-foot-cushion rule. And all three are thumbing their noses at the regulation requiring a 300-foot buffer between church and cart.
So where are the cops? Why aren't the bricks-and-mortar businesses in the area burning up their council member's phone lines? Because, frankly, everyone's in on the deal.
On the Fly, Capital Cart and Delle & Campbell's are calling themselves the Lunch Bunch, and they're the latest participants in a plan to change the hot-dog-and-half-smoke culture that has made the D.C. street-food scene "an embarrassment," to quote Central Kitchen's chief executive, Michael F. Curtin Jr. Quietly and with little fanfare, the city, the Downtown Business Improvement District, local businesses and residents have been working with vendors to give hungry Washingtonians a taste of what they want: po' boys, pulled pork, gumbo, shawarma, anything but another Polish sausage foisted off as a genuine D.C. half-smoke.
To start the process, though, these informal partners had to find a way around regulations that have choked the life out of D.C.'s street food for decades. Their answer was to create a 32-block downtown demonstration zone that gives vendors a pass on a number of rules as long as the waivers don't create "imminent safety issues," says Scott Pomeroy, environmental programs manager for the improvement district.
The demonstration zone was created in September 2004 as a part of a study to find "ways to increase the footprint of vendors without negatively impacting the surrounding areas," says Sam Williams, vending and special events coordinator for the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But the zone has taken on a life of its own as the city has fumbled its way through lifting the moratorium on new vending licenses, which it finally did in December 2005.
The problem was that in January 2007, when the city started issuing new licenses to the 600 operators hoping to snag one, the old regulations for street carts were still in place. It wasn't supposed to be that way, Williams says. The agency had hoped to finish its study, present its findings to the council, and get all the necessary approvals and regulations in place before issuing new licenses. But the council was impatient to jump-start the city's moribund street scene, which had dwindled to an estimated 600 licensed vendors from the thousands who lined the streets in the 1990s.
The council's decision to lift the moratorium did give Washingtonians some new flavors on the sidewalks, including Korean barbecue at the Little Yellow Cart at 14th and L streets NW and Delle & Campbell's Middle Eastern bites at their original spot at 14th and G streets NW. But it also left vendors -- at least those outside the demonstration zone -- to contend with the city's antiquated regulations.
Vendors still must store their carts in a depot overnight and conform to all the fussy sidewalk regulations. And they still have to design their carts to be no more than seven feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide. "You can only do hot dogs with that [size] unless you're very innovative," says Gabe Klein, co-founder of On the Fly.
The depot requirement, however, may be the biggest reason our streets have become Wiener Central. There are three main depots in the District where vendors can park their carts, each licensed by the Department of Health. On the surface, the depots are there to provide cart operators with a clean storage space as well as security, trash removal and hot water. But depots are much more than that; they're actually multimillion-dollar-a-year businesses in which owners not only rent spaces but also sell vendors chips, sodas, hot dogs and the rest of the fare that has become commonplace on the streets.
Akbar Nazary, co-owner of WG Food Distributors, which runs one of the three depots, will tell you that vendors are under no contractual obligation to buy his products or even to lease his space for a set period of time. "We have no power over vendors. They choose what they want to sell," Nazary says. "Somehow the media has made us into unfair business owners, but we're not."
But the complaints that roll into Williams's office tell a different story, he says. Vendors complain about under-the-table deals in which they must buy ice, propane tanks, towing services and food or face higher rents or even the threat of eviction. "They do feel exploited," Williams says, "and they tell me that on a regular basis."
Nazary denies the claims and says he regularly waives rent for vendors struggling in the current economy. And yet for all of his company's claimed generosity, the fact remains that it has taken a well-capitalized company such as On the Fly and a respected nonprofit entity such as D.C. Central Kitchen to find a foothold in this slippery streetscape. On the Fly built its own depot, commissary and kitchen to help store and supply its carts, while Central Kitchen already had storage and cooking facilities, where the staff trains homeless and unemployed people in the culinary arts and turns out hundreds of meals for area nonprofit groups.
But even that wasn't enough. Both vendors still needed public assistance. Central Kitchen had to persuade the city to exempt it from a regulation that requires each cart to be run solely by a licensed (and taxed) vendor, while On the Fly had to take advantage of the demonstration zone's looser rules to get its oversize SmartKarts on the streets. If it weren't for the zone, in fact, On the Fly wouldn't be able to sell anywhere in the District, which is one reason Klein has been shifting his company's priorities away from street vending. "You probably won't see us too much around D.C. on the streets," he says.
Others, though, have seen the future of D.C.'s street carts slowly taking shape in the demonstration zone, where in 2004 vendors began experimenting with new, aesthetically pleasing cart designs and more-strategic sidewalk placements. The zone also introduced the rule that ties vendors to specific locations, which has eliminated the first-come, first-served, law-of-the-jungle chaos that used to send vendors to the hospital when fights erupted over prime spots. And just as important, the zone has proven that street carts -- once considered overstuffed tin cans blighting a neighborhood -- can become a viable part of the business community, generating both foot traffic and buzz.
Central Kitchen's Capital Cart program has the potential to do even more good. The group's first cart is run by Khadijah Tate, a January graduate of the agency's culinary job training program. Tate's an employee right now, but that could change. If this pilot cart proves successful, Central Kitchen hopes to shift its program to something more entrepreneurial: The group would set up its culinary graduates as street vendors, then step back and allow them to run their carts as private businesses. It could be the final step in an ex-offender's reintroduction into society.
But first, Central Kitchen needs the city to revamp the regulations so it can place more of its Capital Carts around the District. The way its chief executive, Curtin, sees it, "rewriting the regs will save the city tens of thousands of dollars" that would otherwise be spent on housing repeat offenders who could instead be contributing to the city's tax base with a different form of street hustle: selling food.
At the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Williams has been trying to push through the new regs. He has been meeting with vendors to negotiate the price of a one-year site permit -- a major sticking point with operators -- and he thinks he has consensus on a $587 annual fee. (The permit has been selling for $800 a year, but there had been talks about making it a sliding fee based on location.) Williams said he hopes the agreement will persuade nervous vendors not to fight the new rules when they go before the D.C. Council for approval this fall.
But even if Williams has appeased old-time vendors, he still has to deal with Nazary and the other depot owners, who he fears will not just lie down for a new generation of street carts. Or maybe they will. Nazary says his main concern is that the city grandfather existing vendors into their current locations so they will not lose their prime spots to fancy new carts. But whatever happens with permits, Nazary adds, "I would never put up any resistance" to the new regulations.
Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry column for Washington City Paper.