Behind the scenes in Washington's newest food trucks
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:37 PM
Truck 1: It is 96 degrees in a galley barely big enough for two workers. I am the third wheel, in a black T-shirt, sweating and flustered by my attempts to rake crepe batter evenly on a flat, round griddle.
Truck 2: Their first milkshake machine proved problematic. Cups full of ice cream and milk flew off its single spindle and fell, splattering, but the Hamilton Beach three-spindle replacement I operate doesn't seem any more user-friendly. By 12:30 p.m., my hands are frozen and my forearm is matted with chocolate ice cream and bits of amaretto biscotti.
Truck 3: A fistful of freshly cut spuds right out of the fryer, some squeaky cheddar cheese curds, a ladleful of gravy and . . . voila! Wonky Fries are added to my repertoire of culinary accomplishments.
At first blush, the food truck concept seems simple. Come up with an easy-to-prepare food item that everyone loves, install a kitchen in a truck or cart, incorporate, create a logo, send a tweet and you're on your way. There's a low barrier to entry in the market, you can set your own hours, rent is low. If one location doesn't work, try another.
Well, there's a lot more to it: a lot of hard, dirty work, long hours, parking woes, storage problems, iffy profit margins and, of course, politics. Lines around the block for lobster rolls and Korean tacos attest to the fact that Washingtonians appreciate greater diversity in the market. But long-established (mostly hot dog) vendors, neighborhood business groups and bricks-and-mortar establishments want to apply the brakes. As the D.C. council gets ready to deliberate proposed regulation updates governing the street-food world, it's clear that everyone is in for a bumpy ride.
That's a concept these three businesses already understand and that became clear to me as I spent the day, and one night, with them in Arlington, Farragut Square and the H Street corridor. Other neighborhoods or hot spots where you're likely to find them include Franklin Square, Union Station, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Metro Center and the State Department (just follow them on Twitter). But don't look in Georgetown or on the Mall. Those two areas are off-limits, at least for the time being.
To see these trucks and others in action, visit the 2010 Curbside Cookoff, an event sponsored by the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, with help from Brightest Young Things and the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, set for Oct. 7 and 8 at CityCenter DC, 11th Street and New York Avenue NW.