Washington’s food-truck lobby is playing a dangerous game of chicken with city regulators. Last week, when the D.C. Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs listened to public comment about proposed regulations on the mobile vending industry, one thing was clear: playing hardball with the city might not be the best tactic.
“I think the reality is that we need to keep our customers, and what we want is our mobility,” said Justin Vitarello, co-owner of the Fojol Bros. food trucks.
But there is one flaw in that strategy: The trucks have proliferated because the lack of regulation has made it easier to do business in the District.
To think they won’t have some regulation seems unrealistic, especially since the alternative could be that the city could slap them with a more dire fate: If these regulations don’t pass, the city’s Department of Transportation has threatened to start enforcing the old ‘ice cream truck’ laws, which are far more restrictive than what’s currently proposed. In effect, the food truck association is arguing against rules that could keep the industry alive.
The city wants to corral what has become a burgeoning, likable industry, as a way to please everyone involved in the debate over the best use of public space. And officials argue that they’ve bargained in good faith. The day of the hearing, chaired by Council member Vincent Orange (At-Large), the two city agencies released a plan that would make 180 locations available for mobile vendors in the District.
The truck lobby didn’t budge from its position.
“They decided to take their ball and [go] home,” Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said of the negotiations. “That’s not the way you regulate. We had always said that we’re going to put something out there.”
But the food trucks’ tactic is a calculated move. They want to fight this battle in the court of public opinion — a gamble that the association thought it had to take.
“I said at the hearing, ‘Why’d y’all walk away? Why aren’t you still trying to hammer this out?’ I think they got to a point where they felt like, you know what, they’re not going to come around to what we think is the best here. We need to get the government, you know, the council, involved,” Council member David Grosso (D-At Large), who sits on the committee, said.
For his part as chair of the subcommittee in charge of this, Orange has an incredible task of trying to mend fences. And the committee still has a last option that could satisfy all.
“I also met with the attorney general, and he’s going to look at the law to see if the council can in fact delete some provisions. If we can do that, I can really push for a compromise,” Orange said. “That would be the best situation right now.”
The trucks have argued that they’re a community-building group operating in the best interest of the city, even if many of them are based outside of it. If that’s the case, they should embrace the chance to reach out to more communities than just the downtown lunch crowd. And with a June 22 deadline to vote on the matter, we could see a drastically different summer of food if things don’t break a certain way.
But don’t fret, Orange said. “I would venture to say that the food trucks are here to stay. I don’t see them going anywhere.”