Justin Vitarello has traveled to Baltimore countless times to salvage parts for the three 1950s-era step vans that serve as the retro-cool Technicolor tin cans for his Fojol Bros. street-food operation. About a year and a half ago, during one particular trip to a junkyard in Charm City, Vitarello spotted a pair of ancient municipal buses sitting abandoned in a storage lot.
He immediately glimpsed the future of mobile vending.
In those two outcasts of public transportation from another time and place, Vitarello envisioned a new era of street food, in which customers wouldn’t eat on the grass or the sidewalk or even back at their desks. He imagined them sitting down to a meal in a 1957 bus retrofitted as a 21st-century dining car.
“When I walked into [the bus], I knew it would work,” Vitarello says. “It would be something that would complement what we do. . . . We want to be part of a growing mobile culture. It’s meeting people where they are with their lifestyle.”
The buses may also be a kind of peace offering in the ongoing war between food trucks and bricks-and-mortar restaurants, which tend to view mobile vendors as a combination of competitor, poacher, trespasser and wandering vagrant. With new vending regulations headed to the D.C. Council for a vote, Vitarello may have just hit upon a work-around to the city’s plan to create Mobile Roadway Vending locations, where trucks would enjoy expanded hours but probably find their numbers limited.
Vitarello and Fojol co-founder Peter Korbel want to use these buses to, as they say, “activate” new areas of the District — and elsewhere. They want to work with other food trucks, private developers and companies, arts organizations, anyone who’d be willing to work out a deal to bring street eats, a dining bus (or two) and lots of people to a single area, presumably removed from the spaces controlled by the District Department of Transportation and away from the major restaurant rows.
The buses are the latest innovation in an emerging trend to corral food trucks onto private property or parking lots, perhaps with patio seating or entertainment. Such gatherings have already been tried or adopted in cities including Portland, Ore. (where food-cart pods are a hit), Encinitas, Calif. (where a weekly truck event ran into permit difficulties) and the District itself (where the seasonal Truckeroo festival has proved popular).
Even the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which has been lobbying for tighter controls on trucks, says the Fojol Bros. plan might be a solution to the conflicts between the factions warring over the public’s food dollar.
“The proposed stationary truck/bus venture may be in anticipation of a change in the vending regulations, or it may be a sign of a maturing industry that is adjusting its business model to mitigate the mobility ‘downside,’ ” Kathy Hollinger, the new president of RAMW, says in an e-mail statement. She considers the cutthroat competition for parking spots one of the “downsides” for food trucks.
“Stationary, off-street vending of the type proposed by the Fojol Bros. is new to the District but well tested in other cities such as Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas,” Hollinger adds. “This type of ‘mobile’ vending is certainly worth looking at as the city struggles to manage the most popular public space for safety and accessibility by all concerned.”
But before they get there, the Fojol Bros. must first rehab the General Motors vehicles — the buses’ first job was moving people along the streets of Knoxville, Tenn. — which had been sitting idle in the Baltimore lot for more than eight years, Vitarello says. After slapping down about $5,000 for the two 40-foot buses, Vitarello and crew spent 45 minutes trying to start the vehicles, which they eventually fired up and drove to the Fojol commissary/headquarters in a Hyattsville warehouse district.
“This was Detroit when Detroit was it,” says Stephen Crouch, the creative director for the buses, marveling at the durability of these behemoths, built by GMC’s Truck and Coach Division. “These weren’t supposed to be disposable Bic lighters.”
Crouch, a sculptor at the 52 O Street Studios, is transforming the buses into functional spaces, with the idea of getting them on the road by summer; the rehab work is expected to cost about $50,000, which the Fojol Bros. hope to finance via a Kickstarter campaign. Crouch figures, as of last week, that he has spent about two months working on the first bus: ripping out seats, stripping off layers of exterior paint and designing the interior for its role as part of the District’s street scene. The spacious, turquoise-colored interior will be outfitted with modular components, such as tables that snap onto the old overhead hand rails, so the buses can take on various personalities, depending on the function.
The first bus is already beginning to assume the persona of the other vehicles in the Fojol fleet: the raw, distressed-metal look that is distinctive among Washington’s food trucks. Yet Crouch doesn’t want to impose too much modernity on these old workhorses from the past; he says such an approach would peel away some important history, which is practically embedded in every rivet. “You don’t want to take the life out of these old vehicles,” he says.
The Fojol Bros. have even given the buses an old-fashioned, Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey-esque name: The Elastic Hallways, a reference to the vehicles’ ability to adapt to just about any occasion. Crouch hopes to affix equally old-fashioned Vegas-style signs to both buses, so that each will flicker its name in lights.
Ultimately, the buses will be a subsidiary entity, separate from the Fojol street-eats team, Vitarello says. The three working Fojol trucks — Merlindia, Benethiopia and Volathai — might partner with the buses at a given event, but the buses eventually will be available for any business or group that wants to rent them. It could be a bunch of artists who want to showcase their works. It could be a new company wanting to hit the streets to promote its product or services. It could be several food trucks that want to mobilize in an underserved neighborhood. “The opportunities are limitless,” Vitarello says.
It’s that last use that could benefit the District’s beleaguered food trucks, by creating whole new destinations for street eats. Vitarello has seen such transformations already. Before the mobile-vending era began in Washington in early 2009, L’Enfant Plaza and Franklin Square were relatively sleepy spots, with few options for lunch; now on any given weekday, they teem with trucks. The density of mobile vendors has been the key to activating those areas, although such density came slowly. With buses, it could materialize instantly.
“Everyone says that you need to go where everyone is. That’s not true,” Vitarello says. “We’re not going to be dependent on location.”
Korbel is in charge of marketing the buses and coordinating food vending events. He’s open to just about any use for the vehicles and, in fact, expects Fojol’s followers to direct his actions. “I really like the idea of crowd-sourcing,” Korbel says. “Seeing what people want this to be.”
Fellow food truck operators initially had a cool reaction to the new concept, remembers Doug Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound DC truck and chairman of the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Povich doesn’t precisely recall why some rolled their eyes at the idea of a dining bus, but it could have been simply a matter of timing: Truck owners, after all, are locked in what many consider a life-and-death struggle with the city to maintain their presence on the streets. They don’t have time to consider another loopy idea from the Fojol Bros., whose carnival-esque shtick last year put the group in the cross hairs of hundreds Washingtonians who thought the truck employees’ fake mustaches and turbans were a slight against Asian cultures.
“Some people that I’ve talked to think it’s a wacky idea, but Justin is a pretty wacky guy,” Povich says. “I thought it actually was a good idea. . . . It brings another element of uniqueness of the food-truck dining experience. We are, I think, all about doing things a little differently.”