Editorial: Food truck pilot program threatens to sputter out

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Up to this point, we know two things about food trucks in Alexandria: members of the public apparently want them in town, but roving restaurateurs seem uninterested in doing business here.

Food trucks were unwelcome in the Port City for a long time. Though hugely popular in nearby Arlington and Washington, roving restaurants stayed away from city limits for fear of violating a longstanding ordinance severely restricting sidewalk retailers.

That changed earlier this year. City councilors in May approved a pilot program to see whether food trucks could fit into Alexandria’s already diverse culinary scene.

At the time, we simultaneously applauded and critiqued the proposal. It deserved praise because experimentation is a good thing; food trucks may prove a boon for the city. Our criticism centered on the lack of metrics in place to measure whether the program proved a success or failure.

Months after the pilot launched, we remain dismayed.

During an update before Alexandria’s top elected officials last month, city staffers revealed they were working with ACTion Alexandria, a local nonprofit, to gauge residents’ opinion of food trucks. Their initial work included a September survey that showed 83 percent of residents polled wanted to see food trucks serving on-street meals, which remains banned locally.

Here’s the problem: only 94 residents responded to the survey. In a city of more than 140,000, that’s an incredibly small sample size.

ACTion Alexandria deserves praise for lending a hand, but future surveys must include a larger sampling of the city’s diverse population. Food truck owners must be polled on the city’s pilot program as well, regardless of whether or not they do business here.

Why? Because the other major letdown of this initiative is that just eight trucks enrolled in the program since it launched in July. Eight is hardly enough to determine, well, very much of anything. Other than that food trucks — whose operators say Alexandria’s limited pilot program makes the city unappealing — see happier hunting grounds elsewhere in the region.

Unfortunately, it appears this strictly regulated pilot program is doomed to failure — much like the long forgotten food cart vendor initiative at Market Square — unless changes are made quickly.

We echo the calls of several roving restaurateurs and city councilors: The food truck task force must reconvene as soon as possible. Their first task should be carefully considering opening up curbside vending for a limited period. Since this is the mainstay of most food trucks, it makes sense to observe how it plays out in Alexandria.

Next, the fact-gathering operation must become more robust. We don’t expect City Hall to hire the Pew Research Center, but a much larger number of residents must be surveyed — routinely — to get a sense of how the public really feels about this initiative.

Otherwise, we have gone through a lot of trouble to concoct a program that meets neither the needs of the business owner nor the consumer.

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