Wheels come off Market Square food cart program

Wheels come off Market Square food cart program

By Derrick Perkins

City Hall’s plan for transforming Market Square into a bustling food court hit a snag this year — lack of interest.

Officials rolled out the food cart program in spring 2011, hoping to enliven the usually quiet plaza with an array of eating options as well as tables and seats for hungry office workers, tourists and residents. Three years later, just the tables, adorned by bright yellow umbrellas, remain.

The concept, then touted by former City Councilor Rob Krupicka as Alexandria’s answer to the food truck craze, got off to an inauspicious start. Officials planned for eight carts, all deployed by brick-and-mortar Old Town restaurants, serving customers on a daily basis.

But at its peak, the program saw just five takers. By the end of the first year, two carts still vied for hungry pedestrians. And only one expressed interest in continuing last year.

Not a single restaurateur applied for the program this year.

Val Hawkins, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, points to the hassle of getting the city-approved carts to and from Market Square as one obstacle. The other is financial.

“It wasn’t really a profitable venture for these folks, for the vendors that did it,” Hawkins said. “When people ran their numbers … they could see that there was a very tight margin on that cart. When they got into it, [their concerns] were confirmed, basically.”

While Bread and Chocolate as well as Fontaine Caffe and Creperie — the two that survived the program’s inaugural year — did not return media inquiries, restaurateur Mike Anderson imagines profits didn’t meet expectations for the businesses involved.

“My guess is if everybody is making money then they would go through whatever aggravation there is to stay open,” Anderson said. “My guess is the volume of sales just wasn’t there to make it worth the effort to set up every single day.”

When Anderson stopped by Market Square, the carts seemed busy. But that doesn’t mean they were economically viable.

“What you see and what those guys actually ring up is sometimes two different things,” Anderson said.

Former Vice Mayor Kerry Donley backed the proposal when it went before city council and recalls plenty of interest from the local business community. But at the end of the day, he said, restaurateurs had to put up several thousand dollars — from $2,899 to nearly $6,000 — for the carts and then operate them along with their brick-and-mortar shops.

“I think it’s hard for existing restaurants to say, ‘Here, I’m going to invest $5,000 or whatever it costs to buy one of these carts,’ when they’re trying to run a restaurant at the same time,” Donley said. “I think there was a lot of interest in it, but I think when push came to shove … a lot of people shied away from it.”

Before retiring as deputy planning director in recent months, Barbara Ross spearheaded the initiative. Even as interested vendors dwindled, she stood by the program’s success.

The idea behind the proposal, she told the Times in fall 2011, was invigorating Market Square. And the addition of tables and chairs did just that, she said.

Officials are contacting restaurants previously interested in the program, hoping to find vendors for the summer months. If that doesn’t work, then the city needs alternative ideas for further enlivening the plaza, Donley said.

“I do think Market Square is a wonderful place, and we ought to look for better ways to utilize this attractive, peaceful open space in an urban environment,” he said. “If it’s not going to be food carts, we ought to look for other ways to make Market Square an attractive and nice place for people to congregate.”