Councilors disappointed by food truck pilot program results

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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors were visibly frustrated at a meeting last month after hearing the news that Alexandria’s food truck pilot program, which is set to expire at the end of December, had a mere seven participants this year.

City staff said that from the program’s implementation in July 2014 until December 2014, eight food trucks operated in the city under the program, but that number dropped to seven this year. Those figures do not include special events like the West End Business Association’s annual Food Truck Rodeo or regularly scheduled markets with special use permits allowing the mobile eateries, like the Four Mile Run Farmers Market.

City council first approved the pilot program in May 2014, after months of study by a work group comprised of city officials, residents, restaurateurs and food truck owners. The group failed to reach consensus, but then-City Manager Rashad Young proposed regulations that would have allowed on-street vending but restricted it in neighborhoods like Carlyle, Del Ray and Old Town.

But when city council took up the measure, it was greeted with a deluge of opposition from residents and brick-and-mortar restaurateurs. In response, council passed what they felt was a compromise: food trucks could operate in the city, but only in parking lots and parks and only if they paid hundreds of dollars in fees to do business in Alexandria.

Assistant City Attorney Joanna Anderson said that although some food trucks participate in the program in parking lots near Mark Center and at Port City Brewing Co., mobile eateries generally do not bother setting up in the parking lots of parks.

“We haven’t seen much participation in the parks,” she said. “What we understand from the trucks is that those locations are not close enough to the areas they feel like they need to be.”

Mayor Bill Euille said the program would need to be tweaked at the very least if the city wants to attract more food trucks to its neighborhoods.

“The emphasis of the messages I’ve received have been that, first of all, the whole process has been hampered by confusing and onerous regulations,” he said. “Maybe we need a kind of one-stop shop for food trucks to participate, instead of going to City Hall and then to the health department and here and there.

“I somewhat agree with that, that we need to try to be more business friendly to make this successful. … Other vendors indicated it’s just not worth the effort to come here, with the amount of fees and everything.”

But City Councilor Paul Smedberg decried the current food truck program as effectively useless in both determining the viability of food trucks and in adding extra vitality to Alexandria’s already burgeoning dining scene.

“While the pilot program was nice and everything, I don’t know why we bothered, quite honestly,” he said. “[The zones] were nowhere where people wanted them to be. Lowering the fee and keeping them the same is not going to make any difference.”

Smedberg said the only way to create a viable program is to allow the food trucks to operate in areas where there is demand for them.

“The survey [of residents] was very interesting and en lightening when you look at the disproportionate percentages in support of food truck programs, especially when you look at the neighborhoods that could use some variety, quite honestly,” he said. “The [food truck] rodeos are a nice idea and something maybe we should explore, but people want regularity and certainty instead of spontaneity. Unless you open it up to Carlyle and the King Street Metro area, why even have a program? Why waste all this time?”

Several city councilors said they would be open to allowing on-street vending in some neighborhoods, with restrictions on food trucks’ proximity to brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“I think the end-all, be-all is that we didn’t provide many opportunities,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “We wanted to do a modest approach on this and I think we were extremely modest. But nobody is going to pay a fee if there’s no marketplace to be had, and the marketplace is really on the street, because that’s the only place where there are lucrative opportunities.”

“There is a good amount of support out there for looking at a full [food truck] program in places that everyone knows it could be successful, while not disrupting the balance we’ve been able to achieve with our restaurateurs and the restaurant community,” said City Councilor John Chapman. “I think there’s an opportunity to do this.”

Council asked staff to come up with a slate of different proposals for implementing a more robust food truck pilot program, including on-street vending, ahead of its December 8 meeting. And Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg suggested reconvening the food truck work group.

“I would love to see the group reconstituted,” she said. “It’s not a question of whether or not to have them. Their [original] question was really about what streets they should be on and how they should be on streets. I know the Old Town Civic Association was concerned about the historic district and how the food trucks would be on their streets on an ongoing basis.

“We should go back to the advisory group for further discussion on this.”

Other city councilors balked at the idea, noting the tight deadline for coming up with a new program, but said they would reach out to the stakeholders again.

“I’ll reach out to them personally,” Chapman said. “I’ll make sure they have an opportunity to reach out to council.”

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