Business Community News Small Business — 04 February 2010

Pedestrians in Old Town could see smaller, portable versions of even the city’s most established restaurant fixtures this spring should a new food cart vending initiative become reality. 

Members of the Department of Planning and Zoning hope it will, for the sake of tourism, commerce and revenue for city coffers, but that reality relies on interest from the city’s food service industry. 

Planning and Zoning staff members held a preliminary meeting with restaurant owners and representatives last Friday to gauge interest, gain insight and entice restaurateurs to join the pilot program, which is nothing more than a sketch at this point, as Deputy Director Barbara Ross was quick to point out Tuesday.

“We’re testing interest, but it is not a real program yet,” Ross said. “There were a whole bunch of suggestions last week that we’re looking at. The whole basis of the program, if there is one, could change in the next week or so.”

The model presented to about 30 restaurant representatives included the establishment of eight food carts to be decided with some sort of competition confined to Market Square that would operate from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. each weekday. The program would initially limit participants to Old Town restaurants but would expand citywide if successful. 

“There’s some flak about that, and I understand it,” Ross said. “It’s Alexandria and we have to start small. And if we do this right, we all benefit, and there’s no reason we can’t expand it next year.”
City staff seeks a diversity of food choices with no overlap among the eight restaurants selected, Ross said.

Some industry representatives have expressed concern with the preliminary model, namely the abbreviated hours of operation, and the element of business risk that comes with investing in food carts ranging from $2,900 to $12,000, plus other incidental costs. 

Others worried that it would hinder revenue for traditional restaurant establishments.

“I don’t understand how it’s going to be additional revenue for the city,” said Ralph Davis, who owns RT’s, The Warehouse and The Wharf. “Seems to me that really, you’re taking an existing amount of business and the pie is now being cut up even more.”

The city’s pilot program would mitigate the business risk by waiving fees that are traditional in similar programs, Ross said. 

The concept would compliment broader tourism initiatives in the works aimed at bringing more foot traffic to the city and, eventually, the rest of the city, according to Farroll Hamer, director of Planning and Zoning. 

“We don’t see the number of people here as finite,” Hamer said. “We’re looking to attract more people to Alexandria and we want to make sure there’s room and things for them to do. So it’s not just a cart program.”

Based on a study performed last spring, 400 to 800 people a day disembark from motor coach tours at Market Square alone, not counting other tourists, residents or people who work in the area.
Planning and Zoning had not received many letters of intent by Tuesday afternoon, but the deadline is Friday.

“I think it’s a great idea that the city’s going out and trying to encourage business,” said Mike Anderson, owner of Mango Mike’s and co-owner of Pork Barrel BBQ, adding that while vending carts could increase the area’s vibrancy, eight may be too many in one place and dinner hours would be more appetizing to business owners.

“This is a whole new thing for the city, so we’ve got to look at every angle,” Ross said. “The general thing we’re looking at is how to expand the program  …  to make the program as viable as possible for the businesses.”

Without interest from restaurateurs, though, the plan will not go forward. The pilot program would require changes to several city ordinances, but staff will not lobby City Council without more interest from stakeholders.

The city and its restaurants seem to seek the same ends improved commerce and vibrancy but the means are still up in the air, or in this case, on the table. 

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