By Ché Ruddell-Tabisola
Many thanks to Mark Lee for raising the issue and to the Washington Blade for providing a forum to discuss something near to the hearts of many Washington, D.C., residents and workers: Their food trucks.
On Jan. 20, Mayor Vincent Gray proposed new food truck regulations, which were the result of the work of the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The Washington, D.C. Food Trucks Association is grateful to Mayor Gray for his leadership in proposing new food truck regulations, which are badly outdated. Under current rules food trucks can be fined and/or shut down by police if we do not have a line of waiting customers. It is a policy that every day threatens the sustainability of our small businesses.
The proposed new food truck rules would remedy this problem. Overall, the proposed new rules are a significant improvement over current regulations, which is why the D.C. Food Trucks Association supports Mayor Gray’s proposal and is asking our fans and followers to support them too.
However, the proposed new rules also contain regulations that will continue to threaten our new and innovative small businesses. The proposed regulations would require dessert trucks to go no longer than 10 minutes without a line of waiting customers before risking being fined or closed by police. The D.C. Food Trucks Association believes dessert trucks should be treated the same as savory trucks. The proposed new rules would require food trucks to close at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. We believe food trucks should be allowed to operate the same hours as brick-and-mortar restaurants. The new regulations also propose to create Vending Development Zones. We’re concerned that these zones could be manipulated to create “Food Truck-Free Zones.”
Lee raises a number of concerns about food truck regulations in his Feb. 10 op-ed. The D.C. Food Trucks Association believes that food truck rules should be made in the interest of public health and safety, and we currently follow a number of rules with that purpose.
Food trucks must meet the same health and safety requirements as brick-and-mortar restaurants. For example, food truck operators must be certified food protection managers in order to become a licensed vendor, and our mobile kitchens are inspected by the Department of Health twice a year (which is twice as often as brick-and-mortar restaurants). In addition to our mobile kitchens, food trucks must also maintain a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen where we store and prepare food and that is also regularly inspected by the Department of Health.
Lee raises concerns about taxes paid by food truck operators. To clarify, food truck operators pay the same taxes as other District street vendors as well as payroll taxes, motor vehicle fees and District corporate/unincorporated business franchise taxes. Food truck operators whose brick-and-mortar kitchens are under triple net leases additionally pay the associated property taxes for those kitchens.
Lee also minimizes the threats that D.C. food trucks face. The truth is that D.C. food trucks continue to operate in an uneasy regulatory and political climate. Lee’s own comments are testament to that. One only needs to read comments sent to DCRA in 2010 in response to an earlier version of proposed new food truck rules to see evidence that D.C.’s food trucks are being assailed by draconian proposals not offered in the interest of public health but whose intent is to limit competition. Comments made at that time called for everything from implementing distance rules that effectively banned food trucks downtown, forcing food trucks to move every 30 minutes and asserting that food trucks were altogether illegal.
The heart of the current issue, and what the proposed new food truck regulations address, is that fining and/or closing a food truck because it does not have a line of waiting customers is wrong. A government rule that requires any business to have a sales floor, dining room or waiting queue of customers – or else face the prospect of being shut down by police – makes no sense, limits consumer choice and eliminates fair competition in the market place, which is bad policy for all businesses, not just food trucks. After all, in a free market, isn’t it the customer who decides and who goes?
The District is collecting comments about the new proposed regulations until March 1.
You can read the new proposed regulations at http://dcra.dc.gov/DC/DCRA/News%20Room/DC_Register_Proposed_Vending_Regulations_01.20.12.pdf and submit your comments to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov.
Ché Ruddell-Tabisola is executive director of the Washington, D.C. Food Trucks Association and co-owner of the BBQ Bus. Reach him via bbqbusdc.com.