There was a time when food trucks — known to detractors as “roach coaches” — flocked to the blue-collar neighborhoods of Prince George’s County to sell crabs, smoked ribs and tacos at cut-rate prices.
Elected leaders, sensitive about the county’s image and complaints from neighbors that the trucks were not wholesome, launched an enforcement crackdown that pushed the vendors out.
That was before mobile kitchens were cool.
More than a decade later, Prince George’s County Council members are hoping to bring trendy food trucks and their culinary offerings back to a place where dining options are few and demand is great.
Council member Dannielle Glaros (D-Riverdale Park) introduced legislation Tuesday that would create “food truck hubs” — spaces within the county where the vendors could operate legally and serve freshly prepared meals and snacks.
Glaros, who was joined by co-sponsors Mary Lehman (D-Laurel) and Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), said the hubs would be located around transit stations or commercial centers with the aim of spurring entrepreneurship and addressing the county’s “food deserts.”
“Food trucks are more than just a trend, they are an engine of economic growth,” Glaros said. She predicted that the hubs would “open the door to economic development and revitalization.”
Workers clustered in large employment centers such as the federal complex in Suitland have grumbled about the lack of healthful food options for years, Lehman said.
The legislation would allow the four-wheeled operations to “sell fresh fruits and vegetables or artisanal or cottage-industry foods.” Certain prepackaged or precooked foods would be prohibited.
Each hub would be coordinated by a nonprofit, governmental or private entity, which would apply for the permits and ensure that the food trucks meet the goals the county is setting. Glaros is also hoping to set up a citizen committee to oversee the program, which she described as part of the county’s effort to compete with its neighbors and offer amenities to residents, workers and visitors.
“Food on the run is getting healthier and better, and I think food trucks would expand our choices,” Lehman said. “It has a lot of different benefits, and it’s past time we revisited this.”
The mobile food industry has a long history of dividing Prince George’s County along socioeconomic and, sometimes, racial lines.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, food trucks lined major roads in Fort Washington, Landover and Langley Park to sell their wares. As the county’s Latino population grew, mobile vendors proliferated in communities with large numbers of Central American immigrants.
Detractors complained about the crowds, traffic and noise the trucks seemed to attract. Restaurants and grocers lamented lost sales. Police issued tickets to food trucks and left many Latino vendors feeling targeted, said University of Maryland professor and community activist Bill Hanna, who advocated on behalf of the vendors.
The businesses tried to organize in 2005, but efforts to forge a compromise with politicians failed. Eventually the trucks largely left the area , though they were permitted to operate at farmers markets, festivals and special events if vendors obtained permits.
“My biggest regret . . . is losing a place where people gather,” Hanna said. “They have a very important social benefit for local people.”
A few years after Prince George’s restricted them, food trucks became the latest fad in fast dining .
Acclaimed chefs and creative entrepreneurs in the District and Virginia launched businesses featuring stylish trucks and curious menus. Some vendors generated enough revenue to open traditional restaurants.
Resurrecting the industry in Prince George’s County, bill sponsors say, is about addressing a need for good food options in rapidly changing neighborhoods.
“We just haven’t had restaurants do their homework and realize the potential these communities can have,” Toles said of her legislative district, which lies inside the Capital Beltway near the District line. “If these food trucks do well, we can offer incentives for them to open up brick and mortar. This is a stepping stool to revitalization.”