Corey Jacobson: A fight over food trucks

If you’ve been in D.C. for longer than a weekend, you’ve likely noticed the fleet of 15 food trucks swarming the District. Armed with a wide range of foods, these restaurants-on-wheels have captured the heart of a city that has been held captive by hot dog carts and Potbelly for too long.

But behind the scenes, the food trucks’ growing popularity has made them the target of a business lobby now calling on the D.C. City Council to effectively bar the vendors from downtown.

While there has been a four-year moratorium in D.C. on issuing new licenses for stationary street vendors, mobile food trucks are legally distinct. According to an official at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, food trucks have been operating under the decades-old “ice cream truck law,” an old regulation that allows mobile vendors to pull over and make sales if a crowd is already assembled. The rule was originally intended for ice cream trucks driving around the neighborhood with a cult of five-year-old followers. But the loophole has essentially allowed the District to become a food truck mecca.

Now, having organized themselves into business associations like the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and the Adams Morgan Partnership, restaurant owners have issued complaints to the department that the street vendors bring “unfair competition.” But according to people involved in the dispute, the brick-and-mortar restaurant owners simply want the food trucks out of the picture entirely. As a result, their suggestions – publicly submitted on the DCRA’s website – have been self-serving and unfair. These suggestions range from the proposal to force food trucks to relocate every 30 minutes, to a proposal that would keep the trucks at least 100 feet away from any permanent restaurant.

Admittedly, the business groups raise important concerns. The city needs to safeguard the restaurant industry because, unlike food trucks, it pays high taxes and creates significantly more jobs. By no means should we be at war with the very restaurants that have been improving D.C.’s reputation as a subpar city for foodies. But their argument assumes that this is a zero-sum game, that someone who goes to a lunch truck is someone who would’ve gone to the restaurant next door, had the truck not been there. In reality, this is not necessarily the case. Students and young professionals who seek quick and cheap food as an alternative to a packed lunch are driven away from restaurants by prices, more than anything.

But more importantly, the restraunteurs are missing the overall benefit of the food trucks, which goes beyond the food. There is an untapped market for what these rolling food havens really offer: added personality to the city. This effect goes double for the areas of the city that aren’t used to their full potential – not just poor neighborhoods, but even bare blocks in popular areas. People will forever seek hole-in-the-wall restaurants, just as they’ll follow these lunch trucks on Twitter to find the next best dish of the city.

The DCRA’s proposed updates to the current regulations, which are posted on its website, reach a necessary balance. Instead of a 100-foot no-vending zone around every restaurant, the department is proposing to keep food trucks 60 feet away from a restaurant that serves similar food. In lieu of requiring food trucks to move every 30 minutes, the DCRA proposal leaves the current “ice cream truck law” in place, which only requires the trucks to move when there are no more customers. The updates are far from perfect, as the ambiguity of “similar” food leaves too much room for interpretation, and the current ice cream truck law is inconvenient for customers who want a longer window of time to stop by the truck. But it’s an effective compromise, one that the campaign supporting food trucks has already endorsed. The D.C. Council – which will be holding a hearing on the proposal in the near future – should dismiss efforts by the restaurant associations to make the regulation more extreme.

On Oct. 7 and 8, the DCRA is hosting Curbside Cookoff 2010, an event featuring 20 of D.C.’s best food vendors at CityCenterDC, including my personal favorite, S?u?á. I encourage GW students to take this opportunity to stuff their faces with D.C.’s newest offerings and support the pursuit of adding personality and good food to our city.

-The writer, a senior majoring in business, is a Hatchet columnist.

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