Digging into Alexandria’s food truck initiative

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Digging into Alexandria’s food truck initiative
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By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Alexandria cautiously opened the doors to food trucks this summer, but few of the roving restaurants have taken City Hall up on its invitation to do business here.

Just eight vendors joined the city’s food truck pilot program since it formally launched in July. The group includes Alexandria-based trucks like Rockland’s BBQ & Grilling Co., Popped! Republic and Borinquen Lunch Box as well as regional staples like DC Slices and Red Hook Lobster Pound.

But given the dozens of food trucks that call the region home — enough to form a local trade group known as the DMV Food Truck Association — the showing is lackluster. Officials report that several of the places designated as food truck friendly, like local parks and recreation centers, are being ignored completely.

The information came to light as city councilors reviewed the still young pilot program last month. Officials overseeing the program hope to launch an outreach campaign, encouraging more food trucks to take advantage of it and the areas of the city approved for mobile eateries.

Che Ruddell-Tabisola, co-owner of the BBQ Bus and spokesman for the regional food truck association, did not put much stock in the plan even though he supports the program.

“[The] thing is, that’s not how the market works. Demand tells us where we want to go. I appreciate the sentiment but it’s not how our business operates,” he said. “We wouldn’t be anywhere if people didn’t ask us to be there. … You can’t engineer it, you can’t artificially create it.”

Ruddell-Tabisola helped lead the multiyear effort to open Alexandria to food trucks. After mounting pressure from food truck owners and fans, City Manager Rashad Young unveiled a proposal that cleared the way for the popular eateries in the spring of 2013.

Alexandria’s code did not ban food trucks by name, but an ordinance tightly regulating on-street vending effectively made it impossible for the four-wheeled restaurants to do business in the city.

Young’s early plan, however, allowed for curbside food service. And that rankled owners of brick and mortar restaurants as well as more than a few residents of the old and historic district. The pushback was fast, fierce and involved a few of Alexandria’s most notable restaurateurs.

Young formed a task force soon after dedicated to studying the issue. But that effort also ran into trouble earlier this year, when members accused officials of cutting their work short and ignoring their recommendations.

City councilors approved the pilot program despite the concerns, but curbside vending was out. Instead, food trucks could set up shop on private property — with the owners’ permission — and public property like parks, schools and farmers markets.

Considering the restrictions, not to mention the hundreds of dollars in various fees required to join the program, hesitancy on the part of food truck operators was predictable, said Joanna Anderson of the city attorney’s office.

“Given the limitations — the limited pilot program — we didn’t necessarily think there would be a huge influx,” sad Anderson, who briefed city councilors on the program last month. “The locations — and that’s the other thing we’re hearing — the off street locations are just too limited. The parks and the recreation centers that we sort of preapproved and said that they can go to … [food truck owners] don’t think that those are the locations they want to be. They feel like the program is a bit limited.”

Anderson also asked city councilors to extend the program through the end of 2015 instead of wrapping it up in October. The move — which still needs city council’s approval — will let food truck owners secure permits for a full calendar year, rather than just a portion of it, and give officials more time to study the program.

Hopefully, it will encourage more trucks to participate, Anderson said.

Though Ruddell-Tabisola applauded the launch of the pilot program earlier this year, he sees only one way to increase enrollment: reconvening the food truck task force early and opening up the possibility of curbside vending.

“I’m really wonky about this stuff and creating, for the first time ever, regulations for food trucks in the city code is huge. It’s the fundamental first step,” he said. “At the same time, you have to recognize that there are so few opportunities available and you shouldn’t be surprised that there’s only eight food trucks there. We respond to demand and here we don’t quite have that opportunity.”

Ruddell-Tabisola points to a small study prepared by ACTion Alexandria. Of the 93 residents sampled, 83 percent supported allowing food trucks to post up along city streets and sell their wares. Just six respondents rejected food trucks anywhere in the city.

Even in Old Town, which was home to vocal opposition to the program, supporters heavily outweighed critics.

If you ask Ruddell-Tabisola, those involved in the debate have focused on the wrong questions, concerns about how food trucks will affect brick and mortar restaurants or enforcement issues.

“Is this a policy that promotes access to affordable and freshly prepared food for people? No one is asking that question,” he said.

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