When Robert Paschen first pitched the idea of documenting the District's mushrooming food-truck scene in 2011, he was a film student at American University aiming to put together a short eight-to-10 minute documentary. The 26-minute documentary that he'll debut at 9 p.m. today on Maryland Public Television ultimately took him two years to produce — and still required a last-minute addition to finish it.
You could say that Paschen's "Capital Food Fight" shares something in common with the subject it covers: Like the vending regulations the D.C. Council finally passed last week with emergency amendments, the documentary took longer to complete than the filmmaker expected and required some zero-hour edits.
Is this a case of journalism imitating life?
Whatever you call it, Paschen is now an independent D.C. writer and producer, and he agreed to answer some e-mail questions to offer his insights into the documentary and the food truck industry that he got to know so well. The Q&A is below.
Congratulations on the release of “Capital Food Fight.” When did you first decide to take on this subject and why?
Thank you! I first took on the project two years ago, around the time I moved to Washington. I relocated from Columbus, Ohio, where my girlfriend introduced me to food trucks. The trucks were in these desolate areas on the west side of the city. You had to hunt to find them. But when you did, you were rewarded with some serious good eats. Some of the best lengua and al pastor tacos I’ve had were in Columbus.
In Washington, I was finishing up a film degree at American University. I read about the food truck fight that had been brewing. It was a fascinating conflict with implications for how people accessed food, the use of social media and how business was changing in America. I partnered up with Matt Pastic who serves as the film’s editor and director of photography.
Did you ever regret the decision as the regulatory process over food trucks kept stretching out, year after year?
We weren’t sure what the heck was going to happen. We just kept shooting. I remember seeing Justin Vitarello [from Fojol Bros.] and Che Ruddell-Tabisola [from BBQ Bus] at the Taste of Two Cities event in Baltimore last year, and both of them were like … are you still doing this? It was interesting standing in the middle of 40-50 trucks from Baltimore and D.C. with Justin, thinking how this guy in a wig and orange overalls helped set this local food revolution in motion. Then … Justin helped us load our car. For Matt and I, regulations were always on the horizon, always about to pass. We made a decision to keep moving forward.
Did your perspective change on the subject as time went by?
It really did. Our first interviews were with food truck owners who laid out compelling arguments for free-market capitalism, innovation, the American dream and unfairly getting bullied and harassed by restaurants and the restaurant industry. We then spoke to Andrew Kline of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington who talked about restaurants as economic pioneers of gentrification and job creation. Arianne Bennett of the Amsterdam Falafelshop expressed frustration with trucks at parking meters. I started to feel empathy for D.C.Council as arbiter of this seemingly insoluble conflict. Yet, as I read about other cities, I realized that D.C. Council could have prevented this fight by passing regulations much, much sooner. (Look at Baltimore.) The interesting consequence of the council’s perpetual indecision was that they inadvertently helped create an environment for a strong, vibrant food truck scene in D.C. That’s my opinion, of course. (On a side note, the term “wild, wild West” was used so often by so many interview subjects that at one point we used Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” as an audio track. We took it out.)
How much did you look at food truck scenes in other cities? And how do you think they compare to D.C.’s?
We looked pretty extensively into the regulatory battles and conflicts going on in other cities, in particular L.A., New York City, Chicago and Houston. We wanted to put the D.C. food fight in context. Bert Gall at the Institute for Justice gave me a list of more than 40 food truck organizations around the country that formed in a couple of years. That’s a rapid growth in a short time. We were watching a new industry take shape. I also read hundreds of stories about food trucks in large and small cities. Lots of similar fights, lots of similar perspectives to what was going on in D.C. In some cities, food trucks sued cities. That didn’t happen in D.C. Another major difference is the size of the trucks. In Washington, they’re small — 18.5 feet. I was in Baltimore recently, and one of their trucks was enormous. Portland has small food carts, which could be comparable in size (if not smaller) to the D.C. trucks.
How did you end up financing your film?
Determination and a lot of take-out. Professors at American University (Randall Blair) were helpful as well as our fellow graduate students from Cohort 16 who work in the industry.
Did some of the truck owners that you interviewed retire or quit the business by the time you finished the film? If so, did you still include them?
We interviewed Jeff Kelley from Eat Wonky who retired his truck — but ended up taking out his interview. We also have some footage of trucks no longer in operation. We interviewed Farhad Assari of Sauca who was one of the first three food trucks in the District. While we were editing, Farhad’s trucks disappeared from the streets, and his restaurant in Arlington closed. We kept Farhad’s interview because he was there from the beginning, and as an ex-international financier he gave us a great business perspective. Plus, Farhad really, really speaks his mind.
Were you hoping to get the film finished before the D.C. Council finalized the regulations on street vending and food trucks?
Well, at various points we thought that they were going to pass regulations. Then the council would shelve the issue. We found the whole subject compelling and decided to see the project through.
Were you able to add a scene about the council’s recent compromises to pass the vending regulations?
We end the film on the recent compromise as well as a reminder that ultimately this is a democracy and the whole food-truck debate lies in the hands of the people. Still, the timing was crazy. Eight days before the film was to air, council at long last approved new regs. It was incredible observing how everything unfolded.
What’s next for the film after its debut on MPT? Film festivals?
I’m really looking forward to sending it out to all of the food truck associations around the country. Some folks in New York and L.A. have expressed interest in viewing the film. We’ll be submitting to festivals this summer.
Do you have an opinion on the controversy between bricks-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks?
I’m journalistically agnostic. But buy me a beer and ask me off the record, and I may have more to say.
When you eat out: Do you prefer food trucks or restaurants?
Both. Food trucks are one experience. Restaurants are another. Sometimes you want someone to bring you a glass of wine. Sometimes you want to stand near the Potomac and eat a taco.