Controversial food truck pilot program lacks benchmarks

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Food trucks have until October 2015 to prove their viability, but just how city officials will determine whether the grand experiment is a success or failure remains a mystery.

A narrow majority of city councilors gave a pilot program for the roving restaurants the thumbs up earlier this month, easing longstanding regulations on the culinary craze. For a little more than a year, food trucks can serve hungry patrons at off-street sites, like public property — think parks and schools — special events, farmer’s markets and private gatherings.

As the sun sets on the pilot program, which begins July 1, city councilors expect to wade back into the contentious debate and determine whether to grant food trucks more flexibility in the city, keep it as is or return to the status quo. But it’s not clear how the program’s success — or failure — will be judged.

“City council did not attach metrics to their ordinance and did not direct staff to attach metrics,” said city spokesman Craig Fifer, “So it is something that we’re going to explore as we put together the regulations, but not something that city council required.”

And that has Nathan Macek concerned. The planning commissioner testified before city council as the pilot program came up for a vote, though his call to track the initiative’s performance fell on deaf ears.

“My general view on this sort of pilot program is you’re doing it for a temporary reason, for a purpose. Usually, that’s because you’re going to reevaluate it in the future,” Macek said. “I think in order to make that decision or to decide how to improve the program, you need to have some idea of what it is you’re going to be tracking or noting over time to make that decision.”

It’s not a position specific to food trucks, Macek said, which attracted controversy from the moment City Manager Rashad Young unveiled a proposal to let the four-wheeled eateries roll into Alexandria. It just makes sense, he said.

“In the end, this is about making informed policy decisions, making sure that council and the public have information that people can use to help understand how the conclusions were reached that resulted in public policy,” Macek said.

Were the planning commissioner overseeing the program, he would track complaints filed by residents, monitor how many trucks are doing business in the city at any given moment in time and routinely survey their proprietors.

Dak Hardwick, a member of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, is focused on another question: How will the food trucks affect the city’s brick-and-mortar retailers? Though supportive of roving restaurants, the chamber wants a business impact study undertaken before opening Alexandria up any more to the culinary phenomenon.

“The city needs to have some additional data and information to be able to understand the ramifications of decisions that appear on the docket,” Hardwick said. “We think that it’s important to reverse the trend of declining business tax revenue in the city.”

Though the city’s top attorneys worry a government-led study could leave City Hall open to a lawsuit — if officials later used the conclusions to force food trucks out of Alexandria — the chamber is ready and willing to lend a hand, Hardwick said.

“There are some [city council] members who agree that the information would be very helpful and would be a big part of a decision-making process,” he said. “It’s the manner in which it is generated — who generates it — that are the outstanding questions and those questions can be overcome.”

Ask Che Ruddell-Tabisola how residents and officials can determine whether food trucks are a success or failure and he will tell you that it’s pretty simple: What are the customers saying?

“I think, ultimately, the success or failure of the pilot program will boil down to whether or not Alexandria’s residents, workers and visitors can get to food trucks where they want, when they want to, and how they enjoy the food,” said Ruddell-Tabisola, who co-owns the BBQ Bus and serves as the executive director of the DMV Food Truck Association. “For me, a key metric or measurement would be a survey.”

Though food truck supporters urged city councilors to go above and beyond a pilot program — letting mobile restaurants serve customers curbside across town — he described the initiative in glowing terms.

For one, it puts in place a regulatory scheme for food truck operators, he said. And it gives four-wheeled eateries a greater presence in the city.

Ruddell-Tabisola hopes the pilot program will familiarize residents with food trucks, if they do not already take advantage of the mobile meal option elsewhere in the region. He and his fellow owners will get their first chance June 6, when the West End Business Association will host a food truck rodeo at Southern Towers on Seminary Road.

“I think people will have the opportunity to see us and demystify us — do some myth busting,” Ruddell-Tabisola said. “The first opportunity we’ll have is the [food truck rodeo]. That’s just a great opportunity and we hope city council members and city staff, even those folks who are skeptical, we just hope they come and get the chance to introduce themselves and get some food. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities.”

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