The article incorrectly said that the mobile restaurant Local SixFortySeven opened on April 21, Earth Day. Earth Day was April 22, and Local SixFortySeven opened that day.
Street-food trucks roll into red tape
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The line forms fast wherever Derek Luhowiak pulls up his food truck, Local SixFortySeven. At farmers markets and wineries, customers swoon over the chicken and biscuits, grass-fed beef burgers and apple cardamom pie. There's one constituency, however, that he just can't seem to win over: Virginia regulators.
The former chef and his wife, Amanda, launched Local SixFortySeven -- the name combines a fondness for the unions of Luhowiak's native Pittsburgh and the road the couple lives on -- on April 21, Earth Day. Their plan: to serve reasonably priced plates made with ingredients from their garden and the farmers markets where they set up shop. By operating out of a truck, Luhowiak kept start-up costs low. A restaurant on wheels also let Luhowiak follow the crowds in less densely populated areas, such as Virginia's Rappahannock and Frederick counties.
Luhowiak, 33, submitted his mobile kitchen for a health inspection and bought a business license, which he believed covered him anywhere in Virginia within a day's drive of his home base. But bureaucratic woes have plagued Local SixFortySeven at almost every stop.
At a weekly farmers market at George Mason University, he was kicked out after food service giant Sodexo, which has a catering contract with the school, complained. At Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, where Local SixFortySeven earns almost 50 percent of its revenue, concern that the truck violated rural agricultural zoning rules threatened to halt its operation there in October. In Winchester, where Luhowiak had successfully set up at the weekly farmers market since June, a local official suddenly informed him on Nov. 17 that he was required to obtain another license from the city and pay tax on his income.
That was Luhowiak's last week at the Winchester market.
Street carts are the year's hottest food trend. Good, cheap food sates appetites in a recession. And low start-up costs are a magnet for entrepreneurs. Hip trucks such as Kogi barbecue in Los Angeles, New York's Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and Washington's Sweetflow Mobile and Fojol Bros. of Merlindia have captured local fans -- and dollars. But the renaissance in American street food is being taxed, and in some cases hindered, by a maze of local regulations that either don't accommodate innovative food businesses or can't keep up with them. "We are constantly battling these people. Everyone talks about how the recovery is going to be based on young entrepreneurs," Luhowiak said. "But if we use all our time to fight everybody, who's going to cook the food?"
Some cities have confronted the situation by issuing strict rules for food carts. Singapore has famously established hawker centers for its thousands of street vendors. Toronto created a three-year pilot project that required aspiring operators to prepare business plans, demonstrate their food's nutritional value and submit to a taste test by a panel of local judges. (Only eight vendors made the cut.) But in many cities, mobile vendors face vague, sometimes contradictory rules; hence many trucks' creative, if convoluted, decision to inform customers of their location via Twitter. The District had an eight-year moratorium on new food vending licenses. Politics surrounding regulations are so fierce that the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has been at work on rules for three years.
The holdup and a temporary patchwork of directives have thwarted Washington vendor Kristin Rider, 28. In July, says Rider, whose father owns the popular Pedro and Vinny's burrito cart at 15th and K streets NW, she bought a vending license and launched her own cart a few blocks away, at 19th and L.
Within weeks, Rider says, an investigator from DCRA told her she was in violation of District rules and needed to obtain a location permit from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). In the middle of the lunch rush, with customers waiting, she was forced to close. Rider says she called DDOT the next day and was informed that the agency no longer issued location permits and that one was not required.
Rider returned to her cart. But within a week, another agent arrived. First, Rider says, he told her she needed the DDOT permit. She explained that she did not. About a month later, he returned and demanded to see receipts for food purchased. Furious and in tears, "I marched myself up to DCRA and showed them my vending permit. And they said, 'You shouldn't have got that,' " Rider said. "Well, that's not my problem. The fourth floor doesn't know what the fifth floor is doing."
The city has made some concessions to vendors. In 2004, it created a 32-block demonstration zone downtown that suspended some rules to allow competition to flourish. Since 2006, the agency has issued hundreds of licenses to new vendors, such as the eye-catching, bug-shaped On the Fly carts. But DCRA acknowledges that its rules are in desperate need of an update. An agency survey reported in 2006 that 66 percent of consumers rated the variety of Washington street food as poor. Eighty-two percent said they would probably spend more money at food vending stands if they could buy something other than hot dogs, chips and soda.
DCRA declined to comment on Rider's case, but an official said it is working with her to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. Rider said she expects to reopen next week near Metro Center.
In other cities, the web of rules is even more complex, as the owners of Los Angeles cult truck Kogi BBQ quickly discovered. Their first truck -- they now have four -- hit the streets in November 2008 with a license to vend in the city.
Los Angeles, however, is a jumble of independent towns and neighborhoods, each with its own rules. On Kogi's first night out, the truck headed for West Hollywood and was immediately stopped by the police, who said the operation needed additional business and catering licenses from West Hollywood, said Caroline Shin-Manguera, 29, one of Kogi's three founders. Rather than fight, the driver moved on to Hollywood, where no additional paperwork was required.
Kogi fast turned into a phenomenon. After announcing its location on Twitter, the truck would roll up to find mobs of people awaiting its Korean-Mexican fusion food. Fans wrote in, begging the truck to come to their neighborhood.
Expanding proved difficult, said Shin-Manguera. In Pasadena, trucks are not permitted to park for more than 30 minutes, after which time they must move to a spot at least 500 feet away -- a rule not easy to comply with when customers have lined up for an hour for pork tacos with sesame-chili salsa roja. Beverly Hills has the same rule and also requires any vendor to have a Beverly Hills vending license. There is also a law requiring that all employees working on the truck have fingerprints on file. On the Kogi truck's first day in Beverly Hills, it racked up $800 in fines.
In total, Kogi has spent $1,360 for business and vending licenses and paid $3,132 in tickets and fines. "There are a million rules on the books. Some are enforced, and some are enforced sometimes," said Shin-Manguera. "Mobile vending is still cheaper than a restaurant. But the costs are a lot higher than we thought."
The hodgepodge of regulations is a nuisance to city vendors. But it is a real threat to food entrepreneurs such as the Luhowiaks. Unlike Los Angeles, Fauquier County has no tradition of street vendors; if anything, a few funnel cake trucks might show up for the county fair. Local SixFortySeven has to persuade local regulators to create rules to define street food and protect it. "Derek and Amanda are absolutely right that their food cart concept is different than what we're used to seeing from a regulatory perspective," said Peter Schwartz, a member of the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors. "They don't fit into any appropriate box."
Witness the trouble at Barrel Oak Winery. The vineyard is zoned for rural agriculture, a category that prohibits a commercial kitchen on the property. If the truck shows up only twice a month, is it really a restaurant? What kind of license would it need?
Luhowiak was nearly ready to give up his truck. Then last month Local SixFortySeven was named one of four finalists in the "Good Morning America" search for the best American food truck. The Luhowiaks lost to Marination, a Seattle truck that serves Korean-Hawaiian fusion food. But the national recognition changed their minds, at least for now. The couple is working with county regulators to find profitable and legal locations for next season. They also are considering a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Rappahannock County.
For street carts to be successful, clear rules are needed, said chef Charles Phan. Fourteen years ago, Phan tried, and failed, to navigate the tricky permit system and open a Vietnamese food truck in Oakland, Calif. Instead, he opened the Slanted Door, which today is one of San Francisco's most popular restaurants. "Right now, it's a cat-and-mouse game. I don't think it should be a free-for-all," he said. "Someone might get sick. Someone might create a fire hazard by blocking parts of the street."
Instead, Phan said, food trucks and property owners should work together. A truck might arrange to park in front of an office that would provide electricity and water in exchange for the convenience of a new food outlet for employees. Phan said he is in talks with San Francisco city officials about turning empty lots into street-food hubs similar to the popular Singapore hawker centers.
Others say that mobility is essential and that the rules should accommodate the new fad. Nicolas Jammet, co-founder of Washington's Sweetgreen salad and frozen yogurt chain, says his Sweetflow Mobile, which debuted in June, helps the company develop a following and test new markets. For example, Sweetgreen recently has been sending the truck to Reston Town Center, where it plans to open its next location.
"I'm all for making sure it doesn't get out of hand," he said. "Right now it's mayhem. If this food truck thing blows up even more, it could get really messy."