February 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm EST | by Mark Lee
Food truck ‘fight’ result of city incompetence

Public perception that a pitched battle is being waged between local food truck vendors and District restaurants is unfortunate and unproductive.

The D.C. Food Truck Association (DCFTA) – led by new executive director and gay food truck operator Che Ruddell-Tabisola, who co-owns the popular “BBQ Bus” launched last April with his partner Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola – continues to characterize regulatory issues as a fight with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) and propagates a false claim that brick-and-mortar restaurants desire to “shut them down altogether.”

It’s an untrue but heavily hyped broadside designed to create a “David v. Goliath” dichotomy in the context of the city’s proposed regulations governing food truck operation. After all, several restaurants plan to or have launched mobile vending trucks, and a number of food truck operators have opened or are in the process of moving toward opening storefront businesses. The restaurant association clearly enunciates support for local food truck entrepreneurs, and some new food trucks originate with RAMW members.

DCFTA’s conflict-oriented campaign may motivate their Twitter-connected customer base to express deserved yet merely feel-good generic support. However, it belies the fact that the city’s rulemaking draft doesn’t solve the issues confronting them and creates new obstacles. If adopted, even with revisions they propose, food trucks will face tougher times ahead on D.C.’s streets.

A stunningly botched effort by the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to offer up a long-delayed second version of proposed new regulations for D.C. Council review reflects a combination of a stark lack of competence and city planning naiveté.

These poorly thought-out regulations – opposed in their details by food truck operators, restaurants and other stakeholders – do not provide practical or effective street-side solutions.

Add to the mix a startling misstep by DCRA in ignoring a 2009 D.C. law requiring that vendors operate from designated street locations assigned for use renders the agency’s proposed rulemaking legislatively defective. On that score alone, the public admonition last week by RAMW that the city “start over” in constructing regulations makes sense.

When the colorful Fojol Bros. “Traveling Culinary Carnival” became the city’s first modern food truck on Inauguration Day 2009, most residents knew only the longtime “hot dog carts” downtown and near the National Mall relegated to spots on sidewalks and which are not the focus of the current debate. A proliferation of more than 100 food trucks has since resulted in an unregulated “Wild West” environment.

The explosive growth in food trucks requires new considerations regarding location, geographic curbside concentration and rules of operation – including the cost of large-scale trash collection borne by in-line businesses. Desiring to perpetuate their rogue renegade status on crowded city streets and relying on conflict-free haggling for parking spaces among trucks is no longer sustainable.

While the city proposal allows most food trucks to utilize public parking spaces for the posted meter time before moving on, this limitation is neither realistic nor current practice. Snagging prime spaces in heavily trafficked areas requires that trucks poach them long before beginning operation to guarantee spots, overstaying the limit during street service. When the city recently began cracking down on parking violations the food trucks cried foul, but without assigned designated spots this problem will only worsen.

Fairness requires that food trucks collect local sales tax instead of paying a flat fee under rules instituted 30 years ago for neighborhood ice cream trucks – a $1,500 annual rate is inappropriate for high volume businesses selling $15 lobster rolls. Accepting credit card payments on mobile devices is commonplace, as should be playing by the same rules.

Food trucks can learn a thing or two from restaurateurs about the city’s plan to establish “Vending Development Zones” that will subject them to the notorious labyrinth of neighborhood approval delays and denials. Restaurants with patio licenses must maneuver an arduous and lengthy permitting process involving 18 entities, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) and small gangs of license opponents, and must close much earlier outdoors.

If food trucks think they can trade on their novelty to circumvent regulation and neighborhood licensing, “you must be new here” is an apt retort. They should call a truce and work with hospitality colleagues to offer the D.C. Council better guidance than DCRA.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

  • Mark, how in the world did you write this and not utterly confuse yourself in so doing? After the 2nd paragraph my eyes started twirling counter-clockwise in their sockets. Bottom line: Would you please reduce your epistle to 2-3 paragraphs and in a concise, logical, and understandable manner? Thanks much, and may God bless.

  • What they say about Laurel public schools is obviously true. Perhaps you could illustrate your piece with cartoon drawings for Laurelboy.

  • @robert: an illustration or cartoon drawing? The way Mark’s piece is irreparably muddled, I envision the quintessential abstract splatter art…

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