The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To survive in D.C., he eats thousands in fines to hawk $8 chicken

The D.C. gourmet food truck scene is gone. Those remaining are trying to eke out a living downtown — at a cost.

Food trucks near the U.S. Capitol. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. gourmet food truck scene — those heady days when a downtown park turned into a posh food bazaar offering lobster rolls, borscht, truffle mac and cheese, and hazelnut flautas — is over.

“It’s a ghost town now,” one vendor said.

But over at the National Mall, the DC Chicken House truck is surrounded by hungry teens doing the museum thing as tourism remains the North Star of a pandemic rebound that has seen only half the workforce breathe life back into downtown.

“This is the only place it works,” said Mahmoud Awni, 25, who found a way to keep his young food truck business going after the pandemic. “But it is not easy.”

And it’s not totally legal, thanks to D.C. rules that created special parking zones for food trucks downtown when that scene was on fire but haven’t adapted to support people trying to serve the only remaining reliable customers — school tour groups in brightly colored shirts and the convoys of tour bus drivers perplexed by our diagonal streets in the tourist zones.

So Awni — who worked for years in restaurants, saving money to fulfill the dream of his own food truck — does what he has to do to get prime real estate: rack up tickets (about $20,000 a year) securing a spot near the tourists.

It’s the same for all of them. Every few days, you’ll see a whole row of colorful trucks — the ice cream and boba fleet, the Philly cheesesteak guys, gyros, taco trucks — all immobilized with those dreadful orange boots on the wheels.

For Taha Mamdouh — known as Papa Adam on his food truck — that means driving in from Loudoun County, Va., by 6 a.m. to swap his truck with the junk car he left to hold the primo space right outside a museum overnight.

He grew up working in restaurants in Egypt and then in the United States. When he became a father of three, the food truck unshackled him from merciless restaurant hours and gave him more freedom to be with his family. But it’s costing him about $1,500 a month in parking fees.

As of Sunday, D.C. records show he owes $1,200 for 23 tickets he racked up in the past two months.

This is how the government collects its money when truck owners occupying the spaces can’t pay up: It boots them. They’ve also been towed.

I ran the plates of a few trucks parked a block from the Capitol.

One bobamobile had 30 citations coming in at $2,660.

A fried-chicken guy owed $970.

An ice cream and smoothie van owed $1,675.

They pay this on top of a food truck vending license, which is about $2,000 annually, along with various health department and vehicle fees.

(I reached out to the city for comment on any plans for change but didn’t get answers.)

Meanwhile, Portland, Ore., has a robust food cart scene, in which “the flexibility of the city’s regulatory structure for small-scale food businesses makes it easier for chefs to test new ideas and respond quickly to the unexpected, like a pandemic,” according to Eater.

In D.C., “we’re barely making money,” said Mohammad Ben, who has been running his Mediterranean food truck for more than a decade.

He tried to go downtown after the pandemic — it was dead.

Food truck owners wonder if they'll survive the pandemic

That’s the same thing Dylan Kough discovered after he paid the $2,000 license fee, got all his paperwork in order and found one hungry soul to eat his beloved, award-winning Smoking Kow BBQ.

Kough made it work. He joined other food trucks that were being rented by residential buildings or festivals. And he opened a bricks-and-mortar place just in time to ride the pandemic takeout wave.

This pivot by fire was the way the fittest in the food industry managed to survive the pandemic. City governments are having to do the same as downtown tax revenue is cratering now that so many folks are working from home. D.C. is talking about transforming some office space into residential buildings to reshape and survive.

Brandon Byrd, whose retro milk truck, Goodies, serving frozen custard (recently named among America’s top 40 frozen treats), was a common scene around town, had his eye on real estate from the beginning.

But he survived the pandemic slump with the place he opened in Old Town Alexandria, in an old ice house. “It’s been a labor of love,” he said. “I bought it a year before the pandemic hit.”

Ben was among those vendors who didn’t have that ability to expand. So he did what the remaining trucks did — he followed the people.

About 32 million people visit the Mall every year, according to the National Park Service. And anyone who has ever spent any time at our beloved monuments and museums knows the food situation sucks.

“We were starving, and this was one of the few options that was available — since the cafeteria at the American Indian Museum wanted to charge $16 for 4 pieces of shrimp,” a museum-goer named Christina wrote in a Yelp review of Papa Adam’s Hot Spot Fried Chicken truck, where she bought a cheaper sandwich instead.

Beyond the regional but pricey showcase of foods at the Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture — relatively new additions to the area — the other museum cafeterias are breathtakingly expensive and uninspiring. Some reviewer highlights:

“Prices are wildly high.


“The choices here are very limited and quite unhealthy.”

“This place is a absolute scam.

It’s an area screaming for interesting, affordable and flexible food options. Supporting food trucks — a market with lower start-up costs, allowing for greater diversity in ownership than bricks-and-mortar businesses — should’ve been a no-brainer.

Mall access has long been an elusive dream for food trucks, said Doug Povich, former head of the D.C. Food Truck Association, which died off during the pandemic.

But this is D.C. And so, of course, lobbying for access was a bureaucratic nightmare.

Because D.C. owns the streets, the National Park Service owns the sidewalks, and concessions contracts with those $18 chicken finger cafes in the museums tied everyone’s hands.

The gourmet trucks thriving downtown laid off the argument. Business was good. Now, it’s gone. Povich, once the lobster master of D.C., now works as a government lawyer after the celebrated Red Hook Lobster Pound truck shuttered.

The remaining vendors say they will do what it takes to keep going.

Awni said they’ve formed their own informal network.

“We know each other. We call when they start towing,” he said. “Or we help with spaces, negotiate with each other for good spots. We’re like a family.”