By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
As the city’s food truck task force prepared to kick off what likely was its final meeting Monday, members and local restaurateurs Mike Anderson and Rich Arslan spent a few minutes talking shop like old friends.
As their colleagues trickled into City Hall, the food truck owner complimented Anderson on the fare at Holy Cow, his gourmet burger joint in Del Ray. They chatted briefly about the restaurant’s option of letting patrons dedicate 25 cents of each order to a local nonprofit.
Then the meeting began and the gloves came off.
“If I had my druthers, I’d say no food trucks in the entire city. But food trucks are going to happen,” Anderson said as members debated where and under what circumstances the four-wheeled eateries should operate in Old Town. “I think we have to be careful about this whole thing. It’s baby steps.”
But Arslan already is in the city — he’s just not allowed to sell his gourmet popcorn around town without special permission from City Hall.
A 15-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, Arslan swapped careers and launched Popped! Republic in 2012. After looking at possible locations across Northern Virginia, including Springfield and Lorton, Arslan settled on Alexandria.
“I finally chose the City of Alexandria because they’re small business friendly,” he said. “And knowing the food truck scene was huge in D.C., it was very [important] for me to get in and out of D.C. on a regular basis.”
Two years later, Arslan still goes out on the truck most days, despite having taken on six employees and an office manager. Like all budding entrepreneurs, he puts in long hours.
His day typically begins about 6:30 a.m., with most of his employees arriving an hour and a half or so later. Between 8 and 10 a.m. they focus on production. Around 10:30 a.m., Arslan saddles up and his team heads into Washington.
After the lunch rush, they’ll make a stop in the mid-afternoon and then find a good spot for the evening crowd. The road trip ends after a night stop at a location like The George Washington University.
But Arslan’s day isn’t over just yet. After returning to the Port City, usually between 8 and 8:30 p.m., it’s time to unload the truck and concentrate on the administrative tasks, like getting caught up on emails.
He wraps up by 10 p.m. most nights.
“It’s a lot right now, but now I’m getting to the point that I’m hiring good employees, dependable and reliable people, and I’m putting them through the training,” Arslan said. “I’m slowly starting to let go. That’s been one of the hardest things for me — this is my baby.”
When he’s not focusing on his growing business, which includes a catering operation and retail outlet on Dove Street, Arslan is pushing to ease restrictions on food trucks in Alexandria. He is one of two mobile restaurateurs — the other is Doug Povich of the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck — to serve on the city’s food truck task force.
The group also includes Anderson and well-known restaurateur Meshelle Armstrong — of Restaurant Eve and Society Fair fame — as well as Stephanie Landrum of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, farmers market master Travis Hester and four city residents.
Together, they are tasked with hashing out proposed regulations for food trucks. It’s no easy task and, on nights like Monday, members can expect to spend hours digging into miniscule details, such as determining what blocks of Washington Street are appropriate for mobile eateries.
The food fight started in earnest in 2011, when two trucks crossed illegally into Alexandria to serve lunch. While city code does not explicitly ban mobile eateries, regulations make it all but impossible for food trucks to operate within city limits.
That 2011 foray, though, prompted then City Councilor Rob Krupicka to ask city staff to cook up a plan to let food trucks, already enormously popular in Washington and Arlington, into Alexandria.
It took nearly two years, but officials unveiled their proposal last spring and prepared to present it to city council for final approval. Food truck owners were pleasantly suprised by City Hall’s speed. They were less shocked to see how quickly brick-and-mortar restaurateurs rose up against the plan.
Faced with stiff resistance, officials backed down. In June, City Manager Rashad Young announced the formation of a food truck task force, to include various stakeholders.
Old Town resident Yvonne Weight Callahan has led the group through months of talks. Her neighborhood, particularly the area designated as the old and historic district, remains the major sticking point, she said.
“We’ve got a group, a food industry, who regards as a fundamental right [the ability] to go wherever they want to see if they can drum up business. We’ve got people who do not like the idea of that in the old and historic district or in heavily congested traffic areas,” Callahan said. “And those are two clashing philosophies.”
With a city council work session scheduled on the topic in late April, there’s a chance the group could end up issuing a report that lacks consensus on several points, whether Old Town should be open to food trucks among them.
Arslan remains optimistic for the future of trucks like his in Alexandria.
A veteran of last year’s regulatory battle in Washington, he believes there is a place for everyone in Alexandria’s restaurant scene.
“When the whole fight was going on with D.C., I just kept saying that there is a way that we can all coexist and that’s clear to me now with the regulations that got passed [in Washington],” Arslan said. “Nothing is perfect, but we’re able to coexist and make things work.”