The Washington Post

New vending zones force some food trucks to alter business plans

While food truck owners were generally pleased with the mobile roadway vending zones (MRVs) introduced Monday — well, they were mostly happy to sleep late, avoid rush-hour traffic and escape the ticketing foot-soldiers — a few mentioned how the District's emphasis on these specially permitted locations will force them to rethink their business plans. Or at least retrain their customers.

Customers were hard to come by Monday on Farragut Square as the District debuted its mobile roadway vending zones. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Customers were hard to come by Monday on Farragut Square as the District debuted mobile roadway vending zones. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Because parking spots have been historically hard to secure at popular locations such as Farragut Square and Metro Center, some truck owners have been developing followings in other neighborhoods, sometimes even jurisdictions outside the District. It doesn't necessarily makes sense to deviate from those business models if, say, a truck wins a lottery spot at the Navy Yard or George Washington University or almost any other of the eight MRVs.

Case in point: Doug Povich, co-owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC, decided not to accept five lottery locations that one of his trucks won for December. Povich likes his fleet to remain mobile and responsive to customer demands, both hallmarks of the food truck industry. Red Hook has been marketing to office parks and office buildings with success, Povich said, so he's not looking to change everything just because the District has instituted MRVs.

"It's not part of our business plan to be in these eight locations," Povich said.

The randomness built into the monthly lottery can also wreak havoc with customers' expectations. DC Ballers, the falafel and hummus truck, secured a lottery spot for Mondays on Farragut Square, but owner Bini Mariam said he was concerned his truck's followers wouldn't get the message. Apparently, fans are used to seeing DC Ballers elsewhere on Mondays.

"We have to retrain customers," Mariam said. "They have a certain day they come to you."

In some ways, the District's decision to roll out the MRVs in December was smart. Winter remains a slow time for food trucks in general. Some operators go into hibernation while others rely more on the popular downtown locations. On Monday, despite Farragut Square's popularity with trucks, only 14 of the 17 parking spaces were occupied even though the city had assigned all of them via lottery.

In a few months, however, more trucks will be clamoring for places on Farragut and other popular spots. They may not always be happy with the lottery spaces they do win.

"I don't think [the lottery] will be a real big issue until spring time," says Red Hook's Povich.

One of the groups that pushed for stronger vending regulations opted to remain silent on Monday. A spokesman for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington said the organization would have no official comment until later, after it could study the new MRVs in depth.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.



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