Lawyers and lobbyists are joining chefs at the wheel
At lunchtime, the streets of Washington teem with lobbyists, civil servants, lawyers and nonprofit staffers. A peek inside the city’s food trucks can reveal a parallel scene.
“While street vending historically has been the realm of new immigrants, in Washington we have seen a large number of ex-professionals (in addition to chefs) open food trucks,” says Ché Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the DMV Food Truck Association and co-owner of BBQ Bus.
Ruddell-Tabisola lobbied for Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign before he and husband Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola opened their food truck. Turns out, Ché also needed his lobbying skills to negotiate with the D.C. Council on food-truck regulations.
The following food-truck operators tell similar stories.
Giuseppe Lanzone, 31
BEST PART OF THE JOB?
"It’s yours. That’s the best and worst part, because you’re connected all the time."
Then: Olympic rower
Now: Co-owner, Peruvian Brothers
Giuseppe Lanzone, 31, is undoubtedly a winner. He has been an Olympian, a Ralph Lauren model, USRowing’s 2010 Male Athlete of the Year, and one of Shape Magazine’s sexiest Olympic athletes. Returning to the D.C. area after the 2012 Olympics (his team ranked fourth), Lanzone wondered what to do next. “You come out on such a high, it’s easy to spiral downhill and get into the wrong things,” he says. Instead, the Peruvian-born Lanzone got back to his roots and opened a food truck with his brother Mario, who has always cooked. “I try to carry over that drive that got me through two Olympics into the food truck,” Giuseppe Lanzone says.
Best seller: Pan con Chicharrón
Side job: Lanzone is a rowing coach at Georgetown University.
Steve Adelson, 52
WHAT MAKES D.C. A GREAT FOOD-TRUCK TOWN?
"There’s an eclectic bunch of people in D.C. that like having an eclectic mix of food."
Then: Bagel wholesaler
Now: Owner, Carnivore BBQ and Mac Attack
Steve Adelson ran a thriving business by bringing New York bagels to the District. In 2011, he switched gears and launched the Carnivore BBQ truck to bring his signature wood-smoked meats to hungry Washingtonians. Making the jump was natural for the Wharton MBA grad. “Bagel and barbecue production are both a science and an art,” Adelson says. He credits much of his success to the quality of his wood smoker — “Old Smoky” — which was hand-built by a disabled Vietnam War veteran and resembles the front of a train.
Best seller: Pulled pork Mac Attack?: Mac and cheese with a barbecue fusion
Sierra Georgia, 28
EARNING MORE OR LESS MONEY THAN IN YOUR OLD JOB?
Then: Executive staff assistant, Office of International Affairs, Federal Aviation Administration
Now: Owner, Dolci Gelati
Sierra Georgia always wanted to start her own business. After six years of working in the office of international affairs at the FAA, Georgia decided it was time. “I knew that if I put half the work I was doing in the federal government into my own ideas, I could be successful,” she says. She partnered with Dolci Gelati Cafe in Takoma Park and launched her authentic Italian gelato truck last year. “A lot of what I learned about budgets, management and keeping track of things made me a better business person,” she says.
Best sellers: Salted caramel and pistachio
Fun fact: Georgia is a 2008 Howard University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in international business.
“You’re a jack-of-all-trades: truck driver, mechanic, baker and dishwasher.”
Then: Policy analyst, Environmental Protection Agency
Now: Owner, Sweetbites
After spending 23 years in her dream job at the Environmental Protection Agency, Sandra Panetta traded environmental science for baking science. Her EPA colleagues were thrilled when she launched Sweetbites in 2010. As one of the first gourmet trucks, Sweetbites helped pioneer the District’s food-truck scene. “It’s the Washington American dream,” Panetta says. She grew up baking Italian desserts with her mother every week. “Baking sweets is about precision. It reminds me a lot of being back in the lab, where I loved doing experiments with chemicals, and precision was important.”
Best sellers: Salty Caramel and Piña Colada cupcakes
Sang Alavi, 50
Then: Hair stylist
Now: Owner, Sang on Wheels
Sang Alavi moved here from Laos in 1988 with $20. She knew two words in English: hello and goodbye. She worked as a nanny, a prep cook, a shampoo girl, a cashier and a cocktail waitress before deciding to go to beauty school. After owning a salon for seven years, she came up with the idea of a mobile hair salon. When D.C. government rejected that idea, Alavi didn’t give up. She started a food truck instead. “On my first day, hundreds of people lined up at 13th and K for my drunken noodles. That day, I was so proud of myself,” Alavi says.
Best seller: Veggie tofu drunken noodles
Persistence award: Sang still does hair in Woodley Park and hopes to open her mobile hair salon one day.
Enrique Velazquez, 45
HOW THE TRUCK'S OPENING DAY WENT
“Horribly!” The sprinkler system went off with the first round of empanadas.
Then: Sous chef, Disney World
Now: Co-owner, Borinquen Lunch Box
Enrique Velazquez, originally from Puerto Rico, cooked his first batch of rice and beans at 10. He spent 16 years in food and beverage with Marriott and six years cooking for as many as 1,500 people a day in the Magic Kingdom. Though he was laid off just as the recession started, Velazquez credits Marriott with training him in business operations and Disney with culinary techniques. These days, he serves some of the District’s only authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. “I used my grandmother’s and mother’s recipes. I tweak the flavors a little here, a little there,” he says.
Best seller: The Tripleta sandwich: roasted pork, skirt steak, ham, potato sticks and dressing.
Kirk Francis, 29
“Everything breaks. We put a restaurant on wheels and run it over potholes at 40 miles an hour.”
Then: Emergency communications, Department of Homeland Security
Now: Owner, Captain Cookie and the Milk Man
Until 2012, Kirk Francis lived a double life. By day, he created emergency communications plans. At night, he was Captain Cookie. “I’ve been obsessed with chocolate chip cookies since age 4,” Francis says. To share his perfected recipe with the world, he spent a year building the Captain Cookie and the Milk Man truck (a former Washington Post delivery van) and business at night and on weekends. He now has two trucks and plans to expand to a store at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW this fall. You might even spot a Captain Cookie truck in Paris by 2015.
Best seller: Warm chocolate chip cookies Tip: Refrigerate cookie dough for two days before baking.
Rich, 40, and Kristie Arslan, 38
TIP FOR AT-HOME POPCORN
Keep the popcorn away from heat and humidity once it’s popped.
Then: Pharmaceuticals industry; still an association executive
Now: Co-owners, Popped! Republic
On trips to oversee clinical research trials of pharmaceuticals, Rich Arslan started researching popcorn. “Rather than going out with colleagues for a drink, I’d meet with a local popcorn shop owner.” When he and wife Kristie, a small-business association executive, took Washington’s first gourmet popcorn company mobile, Kristie knew where to start. They enlisted the help of a small-business development center counselor to write a business plan and get a loan. “We have absolutely no culinary experience, so it was a big leap of faith,” Kristie says. Luckily, the truck was an immediate success. They now ship gourmet popcorn nationwide.
Best seller: The Obama Mix: Capitol Caramel and Congressional Cheddar
More or less money: More, but keep in mind the SBA loan and reinvestment
Anna Bran-Leis, 41
TIME IT TOOK TO PERFECT HER DOUGH
Then: World Bank program analyst/ nonprofit manager
Now: Owner, DC Empanadas
Five years ago, Anna Bran-Leis was in treatment for breast cancer, ran a nonprofit full time and had a new baby at home. After spotting the District’s first food truck, Fojol Brothers, she made a decision: “Not one more day do I want to spend doing something that I don’t absolutely love.” On the spot, she called her husband, Shawn Leis, a mortgage industry professional, and told him she wanted to open an empanada truck. “I had a very stable, very comfortable job, but my passion has always been with food,” she says. Best seller: The Bad— Empanada: buffalo chicken and blue cheese
Earnings more or less than old job: “Definitely less.”
Sweet note: Anna and Shawn met in kindergarten in Silver Spring.
Sam, 36, and Kristi Whitfield, 45
WHAT SURPRISES CUSTOMERS
How clean the truck is
Then: Lawyer; nonprofit executive director
Now: Co-owners, Curbside Cupcakes
Sam Whitfield knows how to argue a case. After just three months of dating, he persuaded his girlfriend, Kristi, then a nonprofit executive, to open a mobile cupcakery in a recession. Her co-workers “thought I had bumped my head and lost my mind,” but Sam’s law office colleagues cheered him on: “Sam’s getting out. Congratulations!” Fast-forward five years: Sam and Kristi are married, with two children, three cupcake trucks, a kiosk at Union Market, catering orders and a cafe.
Best sellers: The roasted apple-cinnamon tart and the red velvet cupcake
Fun fact: Curbside Cupcakes was the third gourmet food truck in Washington.
Sarah Maiellano is a Washington freelance writer and and works in government affairs for the restaurant industry.