Hungry patrons browsing for lunch amid a gaggle of food trucks might not think their choice of a steak sandwich, curry, falafel or pho is a matter of chance.
Yet in the District, home to about 450 food trucks, a monthly lottery by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs decides which vendors control the most desirable spots in the city.
The DCRA upset some food truck owners this week with a policy they say was announced without sufficient warning: one lottery entry per business. It’s substantially more profitable to operate at a bustling location like Metro Center or Franklin Square, so opponents say the change will cost them.
“It’s going to be disastrous,” said Kirk Francis, owner of the mobile bakery and dairy bar Captain Cookie & the Milkman.
Francis was a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security when he bought a used Washington Post delivery truck in 2011, then built his first Captain Cookie kitchen with a $15,000 loan from his mother. He started selling cookies from the truck full time the next year, eventually expanding to three trucks, two brick-and-mortar bakeries and a communal kitchen also used by other food businesses.
When Francis tried to enter his three trucks earlier this month into the May lottery, the city’s computer system wouldn’t allow it. Thinking there was a mistake, he emailed the DCRA and learned of the new guidelines.
“The rules have changed. . . . We are only allowing one truck to enter the lottery each month,” read an email to Francis from a DCRA employee. “Thank you.”
The trucks account for about 40 percent of his business annually, even though they lose money in the winter — about $15,000 per month, he said. He keeps them running to keep his workers — employees with health benefits who are paid more than D.C.’s minimum wage — employed in preparation for the busy season.
He can still place trucks at locations not included in the lottery, but they’re less lucrative.
“If two of my three trucks are not allowed to participate, that means two-to-three spots per week per truck go away,” he said. “I don’t have a profitable thing to occupy them with.”
On a recent episode of WAMU-FM’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,” DCRA Director Melinda M. Bolling referred to the lottery changes as a “pilot” program that would be altered.
“We’re interested in efficiency, equity and fairness,” Bolling said, invoking the phrase at least three times. “We’ll be making changes in June to hopefully get to the right balance before the season is up.”
DCRA spokesman Timothy Wilson said the agency announced the changes in March.
Sam Whitfield, chairman of the DMV Food Truck Association and former operator of Curbside Cupcakes, said owners thought the agency was only mulling the change. He said truck owners are frustrated with the city’s lack of transparency on lottery and food truck regulation.
The industry faces challenges, Whitfield said. While the number of trucks has grown significantly, the number of prime spots — about 100 — is unchanged since 2015. Prime spots in areas like Georgetown should be included in the lottery, Whitfield said, but some brick-and-mortar businesses are resistant to more traffic and competition.
“We could have this industry really moving forward instead of stagnating, which is happening right now,” Whitfield said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
According to the DCRA, some operators put “ghost trucks” into the lottery — entering multiple trucks to crowd out competitors while only having the staff and resources to run trucks that win a prime location. The city hopes the new lottery rules will curb the usage of such trucks.
“Ghost trucks are not only viewed as a problem to DCRA, but to other food truck vendors as well,” Wilson wrote in an email.
Whitfield criticized the agency for failing to do on-site inspections to make sure the right trucks are operating in the right places.
“The only people that I get answers from are the food truck owners,” he said. “I can’t get the answers from DCRA.”
The DCRA lottery program appears to be a cash cow for the city. More than 200 trucks entered the lottery in April, paying $25 each to participate and $150 to use the spots they won. At those rates, the program would generate more than $38,000 per month for the city.
The fight over the lottery could escalate. The food truck association sent a letter to the DCRA on April 3 stating its opposition to the changes. Should the agency not respond in a way that’s favorable to the association, Whitfield said it might seek a court injunction to stop the new rules.
Francis — who mostly built his truck on his own, even painting the cookies on the side — said food truck owners don’t give up easily.
“It takes an interesting kind of person to look at a UPS truck and say: ‘I can make tacos out of this,’ ” he said.
Bonnie Berkowitz contributed to this report.