Community Dining News Small Business — 03 November 2011
City tries to perfect recipe for Market Square food vendors

As the weather cools and local restaurateurs wheel their city-approved food carts away for the winter, officials are crunching the numbers to see if the pilot program was a success.

When City Hall began fleshing out the proposal — first dreamed up last year in the planning and zoning department as a way to enliven Market Square — officials envisioned eight carts operated by Old Town restaurants drawing throngs of hungry diners with the allure of cheap eats.

But at its height, the program had just five takers, and had dwindled down to two when the test run ended in October. While officials had hoped the project would result in financial success for participating restaurants, at the most the pilot met their expectations for turning a usually sleepy Market Square into a bustling weekday hub.

“One thing we set out to do in the beginning was to activate King Street,” said Barbara Ross, deputy planning director. “That was the goal, and I think that the unanimous consensus is that the program on Market Square has done that.

“We are providing a visible, attractive activity that brings people on the square … and it tells people on the street there is something happening.”

Ross isn’t alone in her estimation. Jay Palermino, of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce restaurant committee, lauded the program, despite the few restaurants that participated and the fewer that survived to the end, like Union Street Public House. Restaurant personnel would not discuss their participation in the operation.

Those that did survive — Fontaine Caffe and Creperie and Bread and Chocolate — proved Market Square is a successful place to do business, Palermino said. Neither restaurant would comment on the program, but he expects other restaurant owners will take notice and learn from the pilot’s inaugural season.

Like Ross, Palermino’s firsthand recollection of the program was positive. Now that Market Square is a destination for diners — be they tourists, city employees or local office workers — they’ll keep coming back.

“People were able to rely upon it,” he said. “It’s just like any restaurant, whether it’s a cart on the plaza or in a storefront, as long as they stay open, people will come, and as long as they can rely on that consistency, it’s going to be successful.”

For its first foray into the world of food carts, the program was a boon for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Columbia Firehouse among other local eateries, said spokeswoman Megan Bailey. The group stocked its cart with sausages and hot dogs, dishes diners won’t find on its restaurants’ menus, for the experiment.

Were NRG to participate again — contingent on whether the city approves the carts for next summer — Bailey hopes to see more vendors on Market Square. What the program lacks is diversity, she said. Competition isn’t a problem, but when several carts are dealing in the same types of food, discriminating customers might just pass on the whole thing, she said.

“Much like the food truck model that is happening in D.C., it’s really contingent on getting the people out there and going to an area where there is a lot of foot traffic,” Bailey said. “It’s just like anything else: the more incentive, the more reason to go … You have to have a variety of items — more than just one reason to come out — whether it be ice cream or activities for families or something to cool off on a 100-degree day.”

Ross’ staff will take into account those suggestions as they put together a report destined to go before city council in the coming weeks. They’re also tallying the final cost of the program to the city. When it was rolled out, officials expected to spend $42,483 on the concept, but receive $24,000 back in vendor fees, for a total cost of $18,483.

When it comes to the new umbrella-shaded tables and chairs lining the square, which diners used also to consume sandwiches from the newly opened Subway, Ross considers it money well spent.

“The addition of [food] vendors only adds to the active elements, but whether it’s food you brought from home or Subway or bought from the vendors themselves, having people congregate in an attractive setting in a public square is a big positive,” she said.

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