The Washington Post

D.C. food trucks lobbying to change outdated ‘ice cream truck rules’

Washington’s food truck owners will soon operate under an improved tax system, but they are still waiting for the city to approve additional changes to long-standing regulations they say were meant for old-fashioned ice cream trucks and make life unnecessarily complicated for today’s mobile vendors.

Patrick Rathbone, owner of The Big Cheese, has been anxiously awaiting updates to several rules that govern the city’s food trucks. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)

But Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the D.C. Food Truck Association, says one problem tackled still leaves many unsolved.

“Basically, we operate under a number of regulations that are almost 40 years old,” he said in an interview. “These rules were meant for ice cream trucks and need to be updated to meet the needs of food trucks.”

Ruddell-Tabisola noted that under current laws, for instance, food truck operators are prohibited from pulling over to serve food unless they are “hailed” or flagged down by customers, and they are required to pack up and start driving as soon as a line no longer exists in front of their truck.

He said the city has worked with owners on the first rule, typically allowing evidence of expressed interest on Twitter to signify “hailing” a truck to a certain location. However, he said authorities have on more than one occasion used the second rule to force vendors to shut everything down — not always easy with hot burners and grease, because of a lull in foot traffic.

A second complaint stems from the rules surrounding the operating license; namely, that every truck must have at least one licensed vendor on board in order to serve food. The rule is meant to ensure safety standards. But if the truck owner is the only person who purchased the $450 permit, and he or she is out sick, the truck cannot operate that day.

“It would be like requiring every server at a restaurant to have a $450 license,” Patrick Rathbone, owner of The Big Cheese, said of the rule. “We need the city to make it easier for the food truck industry to get those licenses.”

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has taken the first steps, proposing a package of new regulations earlier this year, several of them intended to address those very concerns, then passing them on to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Pedro Ribeiro, director of communications for the city government, said the proposals are now undergoing the final stages of approval and “could be ready to go” as soon as next month.

Opposition to the updated regulations has largely come from restaurant owners, many of whom are concerned about increased competition from food trucks pulling up outside their doors or down the street. But Ruddle-Tabisola said he has yet to hear of a single restaurant closing because of food trucks, instead suggesting that truck owners could help develop more lively entertainment and dining districts.

“We’re drawing people out to underused pockets of the city, exposing new restaurants and testing out locations that could be perfect for new businesses,” he said. “But we need updated regulations to make running these businesses a little easier.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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