By Derrick Perkins
City officials are cooking up a plan to allow food trucks in Alexandria as their Washington counterparts weigh new regulations on the popular mobile eateries.
Despite the following that food trucks enjoy in neighboring jurisdictions, local ordinances bar the four-wheeled restaurants from rolling into town, with the exception of visiting construction sites. But the longstanding ban, which includes private property, could soon be lifted at the direction of city council — though officials are tight-lipped about the proposal’s details.
“We’ll work through all the ins and outs: the where, how and what,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “I use the food trucks [in Washington] very regularly for lunches in my office. I think it’s something that other communities have done, worked through the issues and [incorporated them] effectively.”
It’s a discussion that has popped up regularly in recent years. After two food trucks made an illegal foray into Alexandria in March 2011, then City Councilor Rob Krupicka asked staff to look into lifting the ban. Since then, the city has dabbled in the food truck market, inviting four-wheeled entrepreneurs to serve crowds at Alexandria’s New Year’s Eve celebration and the George Washington Birthday parade.
The latest proposal, expected to go public in June, comes as city officials in Washington debate new regulations on the booming industry. If the policies become approved as conceptualized, food truck owners would compete, via lottery, for a limited set of spots in newly created zones around the District.
Mobile restaurateurs unable or unwilling to compete for the spots — even after paying $25 to compete in the lottery, selected owners will have to pony up $150 for a monthly permit fee — would have to find an unobstructed 10-foot length of sidewalk outside of the zones to set up shop.
And that’s got more than one food truck owner fretting about moving out of the District and into greener pastures, like Northern Virginia. If they do take flight, there could be an opportunity here, said City Councilor Paul Smedberg, who has spoken favorably in the past about allowing food trucks in Alexandria.
“I think it would great if we could benefit from some of that,” he said.
Ripe for the picking
Responding to fears of a mass exodus and claims new regulations would kill the burgeoning industry, a spokesperson for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told the Washington City Paper that the threats were just exaggerations.
Doug Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck and president of the D.C. Food Truck Association, admits his fellow mobile restaurateurs would prefer staying primarily in Washington. But they still view Alexandria as ripe for food trucks, regardless of new regulations in the District.
“We have looked at Alexandria. … Alexandria is definitely missing out,” Povich said. “We’re hopeful that Alexandria gets the message. We can understand that there is some reluctance in downtown Old Town with narrow sidewalks where they don’t necessarily want trucks parking all the time, but in places where there’s no food options, like Eisenhower Avenue or these large office parks, to me the idea of bringing food to the people [is a good one].”
Office parks are exactly what Stephanie Landrum, senior vice president at the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, pictures when the topic of food trucks in the Port City comes up. A few neighborhoods, mostly in the West End, offer the level of density and daytime bustle to support the mobile entrepreneurs.
“The food trucks, they really thrive during the week on daytime traffic,” Landrum said. “Think of the neighborhoods where we have strong daytime traffic: Carlyle, Mark Center, Park Center. In Old Town, there are portions up near the Metro, but if you compare the office density [there] to some of the neighborhoods in downtown D.C., it’s just not comparable.”
Local proponents of food trucks, like Smedberg, also see positives in limiting food trucks to certain neighborhoods — for now.
“I think it would be a nice variety in certain areas and as a pilot [program] to see how it works, to make sure everything is OK from a regulatory perspective, including parking issues,” he said. “I think in certain commercial areas, at least at first, would be good.”
Competition with local brick-and-mortar restaurants poses a potential roadblock for food trucks. There’s a natural tension between established eateries and the mobile variety, whether in Alexandria or any other area, Landrum said.
And established restaurants tend to have longstanding ties to the community and local lawmakers.
“I think what’s different with the restaurateurs who are here every day, many give back; they’re involved in philanthropic organizations,” Landrum said. “The food trucks, they’re just newer. They haven’t had the opportunity to embed themselves in the community, and by their nature, they move around every day. … The people who are involved in government, in economic development, they like to support the people who are good stewards.
“People like the idea but really are protective of the [restaurateurs] who give so much. I don’t know how you get past that conflict.”
But Povich sees food trucks fitting in with their brick-and-mortar counterparts, complementing rather than competing with local restaurants. Several Washington-based eateries, including Austin Grill, have expanded into the food truck sector. Likewise, former food truck owners have ditched their wheels for a foundation.
“As a practical matter, food trucks dream about graduating to becoming brick-and-mortar restaurants,” Povich said. “[The] idea is they want to grow that business, get experience, find a good location … make some money and start a restaurant, and that’s actually happened. We’ve got five or six that now have restaurants.”
Povich believes food truck owners got off on the wrong foot with D.C.’s restaurants, particularly the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. In other jurisdictions, he said, food trucks and restaurant owners band together.
Kyle Rees, spokesman for the restaurant association, said the tension between the two groups has been overplayed. The association is not against food trucks — Austin Grill and several other members have entered the mobile market — but it wants equal footing. If a brick-and-mortar establishment must go through a regularity process to impose upon public space — the sidewalk — then so should food trucks.
“When we think about food trucks, we think about the fair and effective use of public space,” Rees said. “As it stands, a restaurant — when they want to apply for something like a sidewalk cafe, using public space — there is a litany of different agencies they go through to use that space. … [One] of the questions we’ve asked is why should another food vendor be able to operate without any of those things being taken into consideration?”
As for Alexandria, which is home to many members of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, the group is taking a wait-and-see approach. It’s not aiming to put mobile restaurateurs out of business, Rees said, but the organization does hope for a level playing field with their four-wheeled counterparts.
Michelle Poteaux, co-owner of north Old Town’s Bastille, is open to food trucks in the city, but with a few caveats. Much of Old Town — particularly King Street — already is too busy to accommodate food trucks competing for parking spots, she said.
The other condition: Don’t park in front of my restaurant.
“We choose a location, we promote our business, but then you allow a food truck to come in and park right in front of me. Now my potential guests don’t even see my restaurant because it’s blocked by the food trucks,” Poteaux said. “I think that’s really where brick-and-mortar restaurants become really uncomfortable with food trucks.”
Wilson has heard from several local restaurant owners uneasy with the prospect of food trucks, though he declined to name them. But he believes the city can structure the proposal so that it alleviates most of their concerns.
And based on his experience with food trucks, Wilson thinks their fears may be overblown.
“I think about how I use food trucks downtown — I eat out every day,” he said. “There are some days I go to a food truck, grab lunch and go back to my desk. Other days, I go to a restaurant and sit down. It just depends on [the] kind of lifestyle I’m approaching that day.”
Povich does not believe D.C.’s fleet of food trucks poses a threat to established restaurants in Washington, neighboring Arlington County — which recently relaxed parking regulations on the mobile eateries — or Alexandria. For the most part, they’re going after a different clientele, he said.
“We’re not aware of any restaurant that’s gone out of business because of a food truck parked near or in front of their place — even on a regular basis,” he said. “I don’t view it as competition, and the restaurateurs that I know and that we’ve talked to have said, ‘Look, we’re a restaurant, and we would love to do a truck.’ If your restaurant can’t compete with a truck that’s out there serving people, then there is something else that’s wrong with your restaurant: It’s your service, prices, quality of your food or something like that.”