Alexandria’s great food truck debate seems likely to end before the year’s out.
The city-appointed food truck task force reports that it’s close to agreeing on recommendations for rules that would allow four-wheeled restaurants to operate around town. One way or another, food trucks — already popular in Washington and Arlington — are poised to roll into the Port City.
But, as in so many things in life, the devil is in the details. It should not be surprising to anyone that brick-and-mortar restaurant owners remain apprehensive about food trucks. This is particularly true in Del Ray and Old Town, which are known for their array of culinary options, as well as in the Carlyle area, where officials and business leaders have worked hard to establish a dining scene.
It’s not about competition, argue critics, and we agree. Dining out is not a zero-sum game. It’s not as if one eatery loses money every time a diner sits down at another establishment.
Rather, the major disagreement stems from the potential of an unfair playing field. Restaurateurs worry food truck operators will not be subject to the same regulatory burdens that they encounter when they open, expand or make changes.
Again, this is particularly true in a neighborhood like Old Town, where every project must clear as many hurdles as there are bricks on the historic sidewalks.
We risk being presumptuous — since the task force has yet to finalize its recommendations and the decision ultimately rests with city council — but feel the need to weigh in early in the sausage-making process.
First, the problem needs to be framed properly. This should not be an issue of “We paid our dues so you should, too.” Instead, let’s focus on what regulations on brick-and-mortar restaurants are worthwhile and those that exist for the sake of creating headaches or filling city coffers (or both).
In that vein, if food trucks are given regulatory breaks — think waivers on things like signage, advertising, and getting the approval of various boards and commissions — then City Hall ought to do away with a few of the government-imposed burdens that brick-and-mortar operations face.
Then, we must expect city staff to enforce the rules — whatever they are — as stringently on food trucks as it does restaurants. We have seen restaurateurs hauled into City Hall before for a variety of violations. Food truck owners should know they face the same consequences for failing to comply with Alexandria’s rules and regulations.
Lastly, the city manager’s original proposal for letting food trucks into town included a 20-foot buffer around any restaurant with outdoor dining. That buffer should exist around any brick-and-mortar operation — and it should be more than just 20 feet.
We are in favor of letting food trucks into Alexandria, provided it’s done in a way that doesn’t harm existing eateries that have labored to literally lay foundations in our city. So, for now, let’s welcome food trucks — but with a few caveats.