By Derrick Perkins (File photo)
Old Town resident Yvonne Weight Callahan has a lot on her plate these days.
A member of Alexandria’s food truck task force, Callahan is charged with drafting a set of recommendations on when, where and how mobile eateries can set up shop in the Port City. While the group of residents, restaurateurs and food truck purveyors agree on a wide range of issues, the sticking points remain the same.
“And it’s not a surprise, but at this point, there is no consensus on food trucks in the Carlyle area … or in Del Ray or Old Town,” Callahan said.
Food trucks enjoy wild popularity in nearby Arlington and across the Potomac in Washington. But they’re limited to selling their eats at construction sites and special events in Alexandria.
Though four-wheeled restaurants are not specifically banned, city regulations governing outdoor retail activity make it all but impossible for food trucks to do business in town.
The first crack in the wall came in March 2011. Two food trucks crossed city lines and served lunch to hungry diners in north Old Town. Though a violation of city code, the bold move prompted then-City Councilor Rob Krupicka to push for an easing of restrictions.
Two years later, City Manager Rashad Young caused a stir when he unveiled his staff’s proposed framework for letting food trucks into Alexandria. That plan would have seen mobile eateries serve up food in most of the city, so long as they kept 20 feet from a restaurant with outdoor dining.
Food trucks faced more stringent restrictions in Carlyle, Del Ray and Old Town, clustered in a select few spots in the three neighborhoods.
Even that, though, did not go over well with local restaurateurs, who saw the rolling eateries as potential interlopers, free of the burdensome regulations — architectural and otherwise — that brick-and-mortar establishments must overcome. In response to the outcry, officials agreed to create a task force, complete with representatives from both sides as well as the public.
But with months of meetings under their belts, task force members remain torn on whether food trucks belong in the three popular neighborhoods. While restaurateur Mike Anderson, one of the local industry’s representatives on the committee, could not be reached for comment, Meshe Armstrong, of the Eat Good Food Group, has come out strongly against allowing food trucks into Alexandria — without proper oversight, at least.
“I am perplexed, and this is where we restaurateurs are left scratching our heads. For years we were denied permission to place a chalkboard sign on our sidewalks promoting our lunch specials so as to not affect the nature of our historic atmosphere,” Armstrong wrote in a letter to the editor. “Yet, no one seems to bat an eye that billboards on wheels can roll into the middle of the Old Town square, park in two spaces and serve food.”
Food truck owners, meanwhile, continue campaigning in favor of eased restrictions. The DMV Food Truck Association — with 75-plus members — launched a website aimed at generating local support for changes in recent weeks, as well as dispelling what it sees as myths about the industry, said Executive Director Che Ruddell-Tabisola.
“I think this is a good conversation to have,” said Ruddell-Tabisola, who co-owns the BBQ Bus. “There is this myth that food trucks are going to harm the brick-and-mortar restaurant industry, and it’s false. It’s not 2010 anymore; food trucks are not this new thing where we’re wondering, ‘Gee, what’s going to happen?’
“The local industry just turned five this past January. … This is what we know: There’s not a single brick-and-mortar that is closed because a food truck is parking on the block. What is happening is the opposite.”
Is there a middle ground? Stephanie Landrum, executive vice president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership as well as a task force member, believes tension between brick-and-mortar restaurateurs and food truck owners comes with the territory.
But that doesn’t preclude a possible accommodation in Alexandria, she said.
“I think there is always going to be an inherent conflict between restaurants and food trucks, and part of the reason this [city task force] was put together was to see if there were some areas of compromise,” Landrum said. “Like anything else, we’re never going to be able to please anybody. I think the goal is: Is there a way to introduce this new type of business … without harming our existing businesses?”
Callahan is taking a tiered approach to the task force’s rough draft. First, codify areas of agreement and then tackle the question of whether or not to let food trucks into the Carlyle area, Del Ray and Old Town.
Even if a majority of the task force favors keeping food trucks out of the neighborhoods, group members still must settle on potential regulations for the mobile eateries in those areas, Callahan said. After all, the final decision rests with city council — not the task force.
“[Even] if there is no consensus on putting the food trucks at, say, Carlyle, if that were to be permitted then we would ask for strong consideration of these recommendations,” she said. “So that whoever makes the decision has the full range of the options that we looked at and the limitations we looked at. That’s important. If you just say no, then whoever is making the decision — maybe someone who is not inclined to go along with you — then they don’t have all the parameters.”