Alexandria may soon be invaded. Not by mosquitos or cicadas (though they’re coming as well), but by trucks bearing convenient, cheap and sometimes even tasty food options.
Opinion on allowing food trucks into Alexandria is mixed but falls roughly along the lines of consumers versus competitors. Not surprisingly, those for whom the trucks would be an economic boon — that is, potential customers — tend to favor them. Conversely, local restaurant owners are wary of the trucks because they would potentially compete with them for dollars.
The food truck debate raises a number of economic and practical issues that need resolutions before the handy and smelly vehicles set up shop in the Port City. Competition usually benefits consumers, and to the extent that mobile eateries would compete with restaurants, they would probably cause prices to fall.
If trucks were to reveal a large demand for quick, inexpensive takeout food from the city’s office workforce and tourist hordes, local restaurants would have to pivot to provide an attractive alternative. This would not necessarily be bad.
What would be bad is if food trucks were allowed to operate in a way that was aggressively hurtful to established restaurants, such as parking in front of or clustering around them. If allowed to enter Alexandria, the mobile eateries would need regulation to maximize their benefits while minimizing damage.
It’s interesting that Alexandria is considering food trucks at the precise moment when D.C. is set to regulate and dramatically curtail activity of the four-wheeled eateries. We can learn from the negatives of past food truck operations in the District: chiefly, the lack of control over where they set up shop and loss of parking places in heavily traveled areas.
Several things seem clear to everyone in the debate. First, food trucks cannot operate in places where traffic and parking are already in short supply, such as the east end of Old Town and Del Ray. Second, food trucks cannot park in front of established restaurants, which have gone through Alexandria’s arduous permitting process to open their doors.
East Old Town and Del Ray also are the areas with the largest concentrations of brick-and-mortar restaurants, so keeping the food truck ban there has to be a precondition for moving forward.
There are areas of the city, though, where food trucks could fill a very real need of quick, cheap meals to office staffs, construction workers and low-income residents. The Mark Center area and some parts of Eisenhower Avenue seem particularly well suited for the mobile operations.
Alexandria has the opportunity to launch a food truck pilot program, which would allow for slowing phasing in very limited numbers of the mobile eateries in controlled areas. In so doing, the city just might show the D.C. government how to get it right from the start.