It’s not just half-smokes and hot pretzels anymore.
Navigating D.C.’s workday traffic and its equally challenging regulatory obstacle course, an ever-growing fleet of food truck entrepreneurs are touting the variety and convenience of delivering authentic regional foods right to the curbsides and doorsteps of Washington’s hungry and time pressed.
“There’s a lot of places in D.C. where there aren’t many food options,” said Alex Tsamouras, owner, head chef and chief bottle washer of Feelin’ Crabby? The food truck, founded in June 2011, sells a variety of crab entrees. “There’s nothing really within walking distance of these buildings,” he said, pointing to the buildings surrounding 19th Street and Virginia Avenue Northwest.
As one of two seafood-only trucks among the 685 licensed roadway vendors, Feelin’ Crabby? serves two main dishes, including a signature $11 “Crabwich,” heaped high with fresh jumbo Maryland crab. On the side, the menu includes crab soup, potato chips and soft drinks marketed to a client base of “crabivores.”
High-end cuisine food trucks are booming in Washington and cities across the country, attracting rabid fans and, at times, equally rabid critics who complain of the vendor’s unfair edge over established brick-and-mortar competitors. The District is currently weighing a package of regulations to bring order to the sometimes fractious relationship.
“On a good day, we could get up to 100 customers,” said Mr. Tsamouras, who thrives on the lunchtime rush of business and office workers who look to food trucks to deliver them from the dullness of corporate cafeterias and brown bags filled with leftovers.
Brian Sheridan, a contractor at the State Department, described himself as a “food truck addict.”
He praised the selection and growing sophistication of food truck fare and added that a major appeal of the trucks is the convenience of being right outside the office. “Food trucks just bring a high quality of a variety of food,” said Mr. Sheridan.
Government licenses for food trucks aren’t just handed out, however. Getting a license in Washington is a six-step application process through the District of Columbia regulatory affairs office (DCRA). Would-be entrepreneurs must first navigate the application criteria and pay fees like any other restaurant or street vendor.
“We’re really excited about this phenomena,” said Heather Vargas, program manager of communications for the DCRA. Ms. Vargas explained that city officials are keen on working closely with food trucks to promote the industry and achieve a better cooperative relationship.
The relationship was tested after the District government put out a 67-page proposal designed to upgrade regulations — on parking, idling-time limits and operating hours, among other things — that were promulgated 30 years ago, when the only food trucks on the road sold popsicles and Nutty Buddy ice cream bars. The regulations, first announced by Mayor Vincent C. Gray in January, are expected to be in place by the end of the year.
The D.C. Food Truck Association, the local industry’s trade group, said it generally supports the city’s plans, and predicts the new rules will ease some tensions that have come up in recent years.
But the association also said it has reservations about several of the regulations, including the plans for vaguely defined “food development zones” that could give local officials greater say on where food truck can operate and park, and a requirement that food trucks close by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends — seen as a concession to traditional bars and restaurants.
Still, food truck owners say they welcome the overall stability and clarity the updated regulations could bring.
“You know, we’ve spent two years trying to get improved vending regulations, and anything short of passing new regulations, it’s going to be a failure of the process,” Kristi Whitfield, owner of Curbside Cupcakes and executive director of the DCTA, told the Washington City Paper recently.
Ms. Vargas noted that when the city invited comments on the proposed regulations, it received so many that officials extended the deadline for another day and counted more than 3,200 responses.
Cost of doing business
The crew members of Feelin’ Crabby? say they generally work well with city officials and police — but not always. With parking meters being closely monitored by D.C. police and lines of hungry customers to wait on, parking tickets are hard to avoid.
“If [a spot] opens up, then I’ll take it,” said Mr. Tsamouras. “If not, then I’ll take the ticket. The spot is definitely not worth leaving. I view it as a cost of doing business,” he said.
While the food trucks compete fiercely for prime curbside spots and customers, they also tend to get along.
“There’s a camaraderie between food truck owners,” said the crab chef. “The whole association has done an awesome job of working with legislation to get things passed in our favor to make it fair. I’m really glad I joined, I like working with them.”
With as many as 30 people in line at one time, Mr. Tsamouras said he and his crew strive to prepare their sandwiches or salads in 30 seconds or less.
“The challenge is getting the product out quickly,” he said. “It’s all about timing, we have to be able to prep it quick.”
Gaining customers isn’t as hard as it can be for a sit-down restaurant. Most food trucks utilize social media platforms to attract customers and alert them to where they are going to be that day. Feelin’ Crabby? boasts of having more than 1,700 followers on Twitter.
A study in 2011 released by Technomic, an organization that tracks the food industry, revealed that “91 percent of consumers polled who are familiar with food trucks say they view the trend as having staying power and not a passing fad.”
Mr. Tsamouras said food trucks are here to stay, because of their popularity, steadily improving fare and ease of access.
“With the amount of people who like food trucks and who visit food trucks, I don’t think you can take something like that away from them,” he said.