A food fight on D.C.'s streets

By Naomi Nix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; B6

It took two or three years before Arianne Bennett felt as if she was on solid ground, but herAmsterdam Falafels hop finally emerged as a popular snack stop for late-night partyers in Adams Morgan. She was able to pay off loans and even began a drive to franchise her concept.

Then one Friday night in late August, Bennett got a call. A neighbor and fellow restaurateur warned her that they had some unexpected company: a food truck selling nothing but french fries had pulled up about 200 feet from Bennett's place.

"We're known for our french fries," Bennett said. Whoever owned that truck was breaking the rules as she understood them. "There is no etiquette. They don't get it."

For years, the District has sought to diversify its street-food scene, and rules proposed by city regulators in June were designed expressly to attract unique vendors like Fry Captain, the truck that parked near Bennett's shop.

But brick-and-mortar restaurants are pushing back against the proposed rules, saying they fail to protect existing businesses that make bigger investments in their neighborhoods and pay more in taxes. In response, food truck owners, fearful of the power of restaurant lobbyists, are busy drumming up popular support for the proposed rules.

Jake Sendar, the Fry Captain himself, felt the pressure in Adams Morgan. On his first night doing business, he found himself defending his rights to two angry restaurant owners and several police officers. Sendar decided enough was enough. He now sticks to places where other food trucks have found a welcoming audience, mainly around Farragut West and L'Enfant Plaza.

Sendar, a graduate of Georgetown Day School and a junior economics major at Vanderbilt University, expected that he might get some flak from restaurants when he created Fry Captain last summer, but he didn't think it would create such a firestorm.

The city drew widespread cheers when it decided to modernize its vending rules. The current regulations, created 45 years ago, seemed archaic in an age when a food truck can amass a crowd of customers with a simple tweet. The city's 600 licensed food-truck vendors still operate under rules designed for ice cream trucks.

A survey by the District government in 2006 found that 66 percent of commuters rated the variety of street-vendor offerings as poor; 82 percent said they would spend more for street food if there was more variety. City regulators said a survey conducted in the summer showed similar results.

But over the past year, the long-standing debate over how to rewrite the rules has morphed into what many restaurateurs see as a life-or-death battle, as dozens of food trucks set up business before the government figured out exactly how to regulate them.

"It's almost like putting up a brand-new highway, but you don't put the speed limits up," said Ted Walker, a street vendor who served on a city task force on vending this year.

Much of the discontent centers on a part of the proposed rules that would prohibit food trucks from parking within 60 feet of a business that sells the same kind of food.

Many food-truck owners agree that they shouldn't be allowed to park directly in front of an obvious competitor, but many restaurateurs say a 60-foot buffer just isn't enough.

"That's two storefronts away," said Bill McLeod, executive director of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District. "I don't think it's reasonable. I have seen lines for the lobster truck be as long as 50 feet to 60 feet."

Several business improvement districts - nonprofit groups set up by local businesses to provide community amenities - have proposed alternative rules that might keep food trucks 100 feet away from restaurants or prohibit them from spending more than 30 minutes in a given area.

Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal, from the Adams Morgan Business Improvement District, would exclude food trucks entirely from areas the city designates as "entertainment districts," including Adams Morgan, U Street and Chinatown.

"Grouping food trucks in a neighborhood like Adams Morgan would be counterproductive," said Kristen Barden,director of the Adams Morgan Partnership, which represents businesses in the neighborhood. "This area is not under-served."

Food-truck vendors say that any drastic changes to the regulations would squash entrepreneurship and reverse the city's progress toward a more diverse street-food scene.

"Where is the fair shot for everyone to run their scrappy little business?" asked Kristi Cunningham, co-founder of the Curbside Cupcakes food truck.

Restaurant lobbyists say the city's Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Department has not made clear how it would enforce the new regulations. How would the city determine whether the food truck is selling something similar to what's offered at a nearby restaurant? What happens if a food truck violates the rules?

Restaurateurs say that food trucks don't contribute to their communities because, for example, they don't pay to support business improvement districts, which fund such services as extra security, street cleaning and publicity.

"They are not part of the community, but they still get the benefits," Bennett said.

But food-truck owners are fighting back, organizing support for the proposed regulations through blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

Some fans of the trucks say they not only appreciate the cheap prices and variety but also get a kick out of the trucks' itinerant nature. A team of George Washington University business students has created a Web site that tracks where food trucks are setting up shop on any given day, turning finding lunch into a daily game.

At the H Street Festival this month, RaeAnn Roca, 26, standing in line at Curbside Cupcakes, said there is something about a wandering truck called "Pinky" that keeps her coming back.

"It's sort of cool to stalk this delicious sweetness on wheels," said Roca, who follows Curbside Cupcakes on Twitter, checks its Facebook updates and even votes (though always unsuccessfully, she added) in an online contest where fans compete to get the truck to come to their workplace.

The proposed regulations are expected to be sent to the D.C. Council in the next few weeks.

Bennett, meanwhile, keeps an eye on the street for competitors. "Am I worried that we are going to go out of business? No," she said. "Could it affect me so that I can't pay the bills? Absolutely."

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