D.C. restaurant owners pushing for tighter restrictions on food trucks

With the food-truck phenomenon sweeping D.C., customers of the Fojol Bros. and Red Pound Lobster Truck give their views on mobile lunch trucks.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 11:58 PM

It took two or three years before Arianne Bennett felt as if she was on solid ground, but her Amsterdam Falafelshop 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 higher 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. His Fry Captain food truck 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 who is a junior economics major at Vanderbilt University, expected 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 the offerings were more varied. 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 for vendors 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 part of the proposed rules that would prohibit food trucks from parking less than 60 feet from a business that sells the same kind of food. While many food truck owners agree they shouldn't be allowed to park directly in front of an obvious competitor, many restaurateurs say a 60-foot buffer just isn't enough.

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