The long-simmering battle between traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants and the insurgent food truck industry is expected to come to a head Friday during a regulatory hearing before a D.C. Council committee.
A renaissance of mobile kitchens serving made-to-order meals has spread across the country, and the District recently has been caught up in the wave. But for every hungry customer waiting on line for a hot slice of pizza or a spicy chicken curry, a complaint has been raised by the established restaurants that feel threatened and argue that the food trucks are using public space for private gain.
D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that will consider the new regulations, said he wasn’t surprised at the debate’s escalation. He said he’s looking to perhaps introduce emergency legislation this summer to allow the council to modify the regulations instead of just casting an up-or-down vote.
“We either approve the proposed regulations as is, or reject them,” Mr. Orange said. “It would be great if the council could modify them and bring about a nice compromise. We don’t want oversaturation, but we do want people to have a choice in what they desire for lunch. And at the same time we want the brick-and-mortar restaurants to do well.”
While Mr. Orange talked of compromise, the debate on the streets between food trucks and restaurants has grown increasingly contentious as three previous versions of the regulations have been proposed and abandoned.
Doug Povich, chairman of the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington, said this week that he and his fellow food truck owners “understand the need for managing what’s going on in public spaces.”
“The problem,” the co-owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound said,” is the city’s created a one-size-fits-all approach to the entire city.”
Among the proposed regulations are that truck owners enter a monthly lottery for a paid parking spot in one of the city’s designated “mobile roadway vending” locations. Food trucks that do not win a spot would not be allowed to park within 500 feet of the assigned spaces and must park on a stretch of sidewalk that is at least 10 feet long.
In an email to members last week, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington applauded the proposed regulations as a “framework to make smart decisions about mobile vending in the District of Columbia.”
The restaurant association, which represents several hundred D.C.-area restaurants, stated that it felt no ill will toward food trucks. But in a stinging rebuke, the association dismissed criticisms of the regulations leveled by food truck owners as “misleading” and “patently false.” It called the truck owners’ criticism “merely the contentions of people who apparently are not happy playing by any rules except for the ones they make for themselves.”
Mr. Orange said nearly 70 people are signed up to testify at Friday’s hearing. One of them is Matt Geller, founder and CEO of the Southern California Food Vendors Association. Mr. Geller has been helping to organize food truck associations across the country, including the D.C. association, since he founded the Southern California group in January 2010. He suggested a day-to-day parking allocation as a possible way for food trucks and the city to meet in the middle.
“I think the city has to be sensitive to the particular business model of these food trucks,” Mr. Geller said. “The model is to keep the brand fresh. Make sure people are excited to see you. I always say, restaurants have customers, food trucks have followers.”
One area that’s made recent changes to its food truck policies — and might see more business if the District’s regulations are approved — is Arlington County.
Late last month, the County Board doubled the one-hour time that food trucks are allowed to park and serve customers.
Despite there never being enough parking, “that’s the nature of our urban setting that we have,” said J. Walter Tejada, chairman of the Arlington County Board.