- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A food fight is under way in the District of Columbia, but not the usual kind. Instead of schoolchildren throwing mashed potatoes at one another, restaurateurs are urging the District government to clamp down on street food vendors.

In June, the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Vending Regulations 24 DCMR 5 to control “vending licensure, vendor operations, the designation of sidewalk and roadway vending locations, public markets” and “vending development zones,” among other restrictions.

The new rules would punish food-truck owners by restricting where they operate, how they apply for licenses and how vendors interact with the public. The attempt to limit competition is at the expense of paying customers, who will find it more inconvenient to enjoy a wide variety of cheap food options, and food vendors, who will be less free to execute business decisions.

Lynn Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, fears that food trucks might “unfairly compete or unreasonably interfere with the operations of permanent businesses.”

Ms. Breaux misunderstands, or conveniently ignores, the nature of free markets. The main principle is that competition can come from anywhere. Ms. Breaux’s fear of the burgeoning food-truck business simply is not a compelling reason to severely restrict mobile entrepreneurs.

Food trucks are no more of a threat to traditional restaurants than pizza-delivery guys. The trucks attract customers who also frequent restaurants, and it’s highly unlikely that new dining options will completely change their eating habits. Also, while standing in lines is enjoyable occasionally, people will still choose to dine leisurely at restaurants, where they have the option of drinking a martini or three over lunch.

Still, if restaurateurs really feel threatened, they should work harder to better market and brand their businesses. The city’s blossoming food scene suggests that restaurant owners and chefs alike are fully capable of devising creative culinary solutions to counter the popularity of gourmet food trucks. If they can’t compete successfully, maybe they should abandon their brick-and-mortar establishments for food trucks.

Government-designed vending zones, lotteries and parking time limits are at best arbitrary and at worst blatant attempts to protect powerful interests against upstarts. Government meddling into food trucks’ business hours and location arrangements will needlessly complicate decisions that vendors can work out among themselves. As grown-ups seeking aboveboard profits, food-truck vendors are more than able to develop their own informal rules governing how they interact with each other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on New York City street vendors notes: “Rule No. 1 in the rough-and-tumble business of gourmet-food trucks is to avoid parking on the same block as your brethren.”

There’s no reason this “common law” followed by New York street vendors will not become the unwritten law of D.C. food-truck operators. Government intrusion is not necessary for vendors to find agreeable and profitable compromises, especially when tools like Twitter, Facebook and blogs help both drivers and diners find the food trucks.

The law also seeks to “advance D.C.’s efforts to make its sidewalks a vibrant place of business with dynamic food options.”

Already, the District’s food-truck brigade includes Mexican, Indian, Italian, Korean and French foods, along with lobster and cupcakes sold from trucks. As the trend gains momentum, options surely will mirror those of the more intense scenes in Los Angeles and New York City, whose inhabitants enjoy fare from gourmet ice cream, burger, halal, tapas, cheesesteak and barbecue trucks.

Washington is an international city, and its residents and workers clearly have a high demand for international dishes. Cumbersome, complex regulations that discourage new business creation are at odds with the vibrant food marketplace the local government claims to support.

Who will win this fight? Quite possibly, entrenched business interests that prefer not to compete with the new upstarts. But the only way for consumers to win is for D.C.’s local government to step back and allow the food truck industry to flourish.

Deborah Elson and Caleb Brown are foodies who work in the District.

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