On April 1, Che Ruddell-Tabisola, co-owner of the BBQ Bus and a longtime activist, became the first paid executive director of the DMW Food Truck Association. Ruddell-Tabisola is a founding member of the association and previously served as its executive director in an unpaid capacity in 2012. He also served as the association's political director last year, as it fought for new vending regulations.
Now that his full-time job is to nurture and promote mobile vending in region, I thought it would be a good time to ask Ruddell-Tabisola a few questions about the future of food trucks. An edited transcript of our e-mail Q&A is below.
Congratulations on the new job. What made you take it?
Love, really. A love for street vending, the experiences I’ve had in it, the friends I’ve made, the opportunities street vending has provided to Tadd [Ruddell-Tabisola, his partner with the BBQ Bus and in life] and I.
After the D.C. regulations passed, we (the current and past board members of the association) talked about what was next now that our primary objective for forming the association was met. I think a lot of groups — chambers of commerce, restaurant associations, for example — have had moments in their histories when they had to make the leap from an all-volunteer organization of activists with a very political mission to something bigger, broader and more sustainable. That’s the moment we’re in.
Do you have a five-year or 10-year plan for the association and where you would like to take it?
Well, right now it’s a two- and five-year plan. The mission of the DMV Food Truck Association is to enrich and promote the industry, so something new members will see this year is an increased focus on education on things such as how to add catering to your curbside business. We’re developing a food safety course for food trucks that focuses on best food safety practices in the world of vending, which the typical safety course misses. And in March 2015, we’re holding our first Food Truck Industry Conference.
Members will also see more shared promotions, which is a very traditional role for a trade association to play. You see it in DMV Food Truck Week and will see it with DMV Food Truck Tours, which we’re launching June 23 with Capital City Bike Tours. It’s a great tour: a bike ride around the city, past the White House, U.S. Capitol and National Mall with stops at four association members' trucks for a bite. The tour guide talks about the dish and the vendor who created it. It’s a fun tour and a way to showcase our members who are running some of the best food trucks in the country — well, the world really, when you think about the millions of people of visit Washington each year.
And of course, we will continue to advocate for fair regulations for food trucks.
Back on the streets, how have the new vending regulations, and the mobile vending zones (MRVs) in particular, gone over with food truck owners?
Well, to be sure, it’s been a real change in how we do business, especially for the early food trucks. If you conducted a poll of owners, I think you’d find a real mixed bag: some very critical of the MRV locations program, some pleased with parts of it, but increasingly frustrated with new issues that have arisen. And I’ve spoken with some vendors who are okay with it.
There’s a lot of opportunity for improvement to the MRV locations program, starting with prorating the MRV locations fee. Currently, vendors pay the same $150 if they vend in MRV locations four days a week or just two days a week. Vendors should only be paying for what they use. But DCRA deserves a lot of credit for being receptive to listening to vendors’ concerns and our suggestions, and I’m hopeful we’ll see a change in how the fees are charged soon.
The MRVs seem to have had an interesting impact on trucks: From my perspective, the zones appear to have forced vendors to get creative on where to sell meals. I’ve noticed trucks popping up on streets where they didn’t used to be. Is this a result of the new regulations?
I’m not sure if I can say it’s a result of the new regulations, but the regulations certainly allow for an environment where the industry can grow. To take a step back from just the MRV locations portion and talk about the regulations as a whole: In many ways the new regulations in Washington are among the best in the country, because they preserve the industry’s central tenet — mobility. Food trucks can meet customers almost anywhere customers want them. If a food truck wants to vend in one of the approximately dozen blocks that comprise the MRV locations, they have to enter a drawing. But if, for example, they don’t draw Farragut Square, they can vend a block away. The association fought hard to preserve that ability.
I talk a lot about our industry growing in market share. The MRV locations comprise just 2 percent of geographic downtown. I know density greatly varies, but still, I think there are lot of people who have yet to have lunch from a food truck. I’m hoping we can change that.
Is there concern among vendors that once they activate a new street and make it popular for food trucks that local businesses will ask D.C. government to create an MRV to limit the competition? Has anything like that popped up yet?
We haven’t seen anything like that come up. It might be too early to say.
How has the loss of some high-profile trucks, like the Fojol Bros. and Eat Wonky and Cirque Cuisine, affected the local street vending scene?
I have a lot of love for Justin [Vitarello, co-founder of Fojol Bros]. He is the original vendor. We owe him and the first generation of vendors a lot. They really taught the city what a food truck was. I was sad to see Sean Swartz (of Cirque Cuisine) close, I once had an awesome roasted sweet potato stuffed with kale from his truck. I talk with Jeff Kelley (of Eat Wonky) all the time, but he was one of my first food trucks ever, when he was vending night outside Solly’s. I certainly miss the poutine.
Food trucks close for a lot of reasons, including success stories like El Floridano and PORC, which opened bricks-and-mortar restaurants. But — and this is important —we’re also seeing great new food trucks opening, bringing fresh excitement and great food to the street food scene.
Alexandria just launched a pilot program to allow food trucks to start vending on private property, but not public streets. What was your reaction to the small victory? Did you hope for more?
The Alexandria ordinance is a tremendous: You know, I’m a little wonky about this stuff, but for the first time ever, there is an ongoing regulatory regime for food trucks in Alexandria; there is the creation of a city-issued food truck permit. These are significant policy achievements that could easily go unappreciated. But they really make possible everything else. Lifting the ban on vending on private property is creating more vending opportunities, and the discussion about on-street vending continues.
You're near the end of DMV Food Truck Week. How has the promotion been going? It seems like the association is getting more creative about packaging food trucks so vendors don’t have to rely just on lunch business. Is that the case?
Food Truck Week has been great. While our previous communications have been about advocacy, the focus of DMV Food Truck Week has been about the food and food truck dining.
You’re right to notice it’s about expanding vending opportunities, which an important activity of the association. The first Food Truck Rodeo in Alexandria drew more than 2,000 people. Last night in Petworth, 100 people came to our supper club event. And I already have a couple ideas for some new things for DMV Food Truck Week II.
Matt Geller, founder of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, has just launched a national association for food trucks. Will the DMV Food Truck Association join up? Why or why not?
We’re a member, and Doug Povich (chairman of our board of directors and co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck) is on the board. A primary function of the national group is to support new or young associations.
So many people, including Matt, the head of the SoCal association and heading the national group, have given us help along the way, so I’m eager to pay some of that forward and help where I can.
As you noted to me recently, nearly 20 local food trucks have made the jump to a bricks-and-mortar business. How do you read that: That food trucks are a good incubator for the move to a storefront location? Or that food trucks have hit a peak in the District and now there’s too much competition for too few customers? Or a bit of both?
From the math I’ve done, less than 25 percent of downtown workers eat from a food truck weekly. And the little research that’s out there about food truck customers indicates that even the strongest food truck supporters only visit once every two weeks. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to increase the industry’s market share of diners.
And food trucks have proven that they’re adding to the dining scene, both by growing into bricks-and-mortar businesses and by helping to draw people to retail and shopping areas. Across the street from Farragut Square, four new bricks-and-mortar restaurants have opened or are in the process of opening.
You are also co-owner of BBQ Bus, which just announced it’s launching its own bricks-and-mortar location in cooperation with the forthcoming Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring. Will the truck continue to operate now? Or will you follow others and retire the truck?
BBQ Bus definitely provided the best classroom possible to prepare us for this opportunity, but we’re also moving from the Bus’ 70-square-foot kitchen to a 300-seat restaurant. There are 150 seats just in the beer garden. So we’ll likely curb the Bus for awhile as we’re hiring and training.
I came to street vending as a supportive spouse, but over time, I’ve developed my own love for it. Not just for the opportunity it’s given me to advocate for the smallest of small businesses owners, but I love the food, the excitement, the culture, the vendors, the regulars who come weather it’s snowing or a 100-plus degrees outside. Food trucks all at once offer the convenience of fast food, the affordability of fast-casual, the dishes that you would expect to find in specialty or finer dining and the intimacy of a mom-and-pop shop. It’s really a remarkable business.
I believe in street vending. So I hope our break from the road will not be too long.