The Food Truck Conundrum: Urban Politics and Mobile Eats

When local DC cultural website DCist tweeted a celebratory announcement of the arrival of Chic-fil-A’s new roaming food truck in the nation’s capital, one might have thought the tweet rather ho-hum. At most, cries of corporate infringement on a burgeoning subculture might have been expected to ring out. However, within minutes several prominent DC restaurant proprietors responded with harsh admonishments, but not about aesthetics or subcultures. Perhaps most notably, Dean Gold owner of Cleveland Park’s popular Dino restaurant, rebuked DCist for publicizing the food truck of a company known to support anti-gay causes and legislation tweeting:

ChickFilA_Fuckers hate gays and we need to care? What a massive fail for DCist! Fck em both!

DCist editor Martin Austermuhle responded via an editorial that more or less asked the question, how much should food and politics mix?  Should we look at every meal as a sort of political stance? Does someone’s bad politics make their food bad? Does someone’s good politics make their food good? City Paper’s Chris Shott summed up the controversy fairly neatly: “The abrupt shift in dialogue from waffle fries on wheels to the country’s never-ending culture wars is not entirely surprising—this is Washington, after all.”

In the last couple years, food trucks have rapidly moved into the DC food scene.  While cities like Austin have long celebrated their food truck cuisine (kimchi tacos anyone?), DC’s response has been more muted.  Yet, most debates about food trucks avoid the cultural knife fighting of the Chick-fil-A example. Instead, as in other metropolises, brick and mortar restaurants resent their presence. These more traditional establishments argue that mobile vendors skirt taxes, disrupt street traffic, and fail to care for the neighborhood – more or less accusing trucks and their patrons of leaving behind considerable waste. In regard to municipal revenues, trucks pay a one time fee of $1500 while traditional restaurants pay 10% on sales tax.  Though the motivations differ,  business organizations, restaurant owners and mobile vendors have all demanded the city council set rules for trucks.  Brick and mortar establishments and local business  improvement associations  hope to hobble the growing industry both view as a net negative.  On the other hand, trucks hope to increase their mobility or really their right to be immobile.   Current rules that were devised primarily for roaming ice cream vendors prevent trucks from sitting in one spot for any real extended period of time.

In January proposed rules were released with an October 2012 deadline that sets off a new sales tax requirement from vendors but with updated regulations that will grant greater mobility to food trucks.  This might not seem like such a big deal; however, the reality remains that consumers love the trucks, but restaurants hate them.  As City Paper journalist Tim Carman observed, lunch time foodies may have been thrilled in recent years to witness the arrival of roving cuisine but the “deep-pocketed, politically wired” restaurant and business leaders  not only disdain them but hold a clear advantage. Of course, Carman pointed out a uniquely DC aspect to the controversy: the “old school street carts” dislike street trucks as much as their brick and mortar cousins.  Odd bedfellows, but not necessarily surprising ones — especially since each represents an age-old iteration of food service threatened by a new young edgy genre that borrows aspects from both.

Considering how fast mobile vendors have developed and the rapidity with which they have proliferated,  it certainly makes sense that the city draft regulations that might promote the new industry while placating  disgruntled more traditional establishments.  D.C. is not alone in its food truck troubles. Cities ranging from Carmel, California — where one Congressman wants to ban them blaming trucks for child obesity – to St. Louis  and New York are all wrangling with similar developments. This past January, Forbes blogger and contributor Erik Cain suggested that rather than establish a better playing field for everyone, restaurants and their lobbyists wanted only to “crush food trucks entirely.”  Cain saw it largely as a metaphor for how difficult starting a business can be, especially in the face of entrenched lobbyists intent on using the state to squash competition.

From a culinary standpoint, the increase in the number of trucks made an immediate impression on DC foodies. City Paper’s Carman  pointed this out concisely in September 2010: “Before Washingtonians could say ‘dirty water dogs,’ the streets were awash with Maine lobster rolls, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, Korean-style tacos, Indian butter chicken, Middle Eastern shawarma, and Canadian poutine.”

Old School “water dog” cart NY style

Why invest in a food truck over establishing a new restaurant? In short, the start up costs pale in comparison with that of a restaurant (50,000 for a food truck, 750,000 for a bricks and mortar establishment). While the truck may only turn a profit of about 10%, a restaurant with good volume will range from 14%-20%.  Anyone who watched season 2 of HBO’s Treme, knows the fate of Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens).   Desautel’s restaurant struggled to remain open in the aftermath of Katrina, eventually closing, thus leading to her brief, but largely unsuccessful foray into the food truck business. As the episode illustrated, running a food truck fails to be the hipster dream that locals in places like Austin, TX might hope for: inclement weather alone can be a truck’s undoing let alone political blow back from connected business owners.

One could argue that the most fascinating aspects of food trucks are that they traverse urban life in several different ways including use of social media, tax debates, concerns over community, political maneuvering, and a city’s cultural aesthetics. All these issues and more come to the fore when DC residents, entrepreneurs, and politicians hash out new regulations for food trucks.

The Georgetown ANC in action!

Take, for example, the February 28, 2012 meeting of the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (known locally as the ANC).  Basically, DC is divided into several zones, each with its own ANC.  ToM attended said meeting where as local blog The Georgetown Metropolitan noted the debate over Georgetown’s food truck regulations at moments turned into a “feisty back and forth.”  Commissioners and observers raised fair questions about trash and the effect that food trucks might have on local brick and mortar establishments.  As numerous long time residents will tell you, the Georgetown waterfront endured real struggles with rats over the past two decades, and no one wants to return to a vermin infested past. Speaking to City Paper in 2010, Arianne Bennett, the co-owner of Amsterdam Falafelshop located in the hip Adams Morgan section of town lamented “the profusion of truck operators with out-of-state license plates; the sidewalk congestion that trucks can create . . . [and] the trucks’ lack of responsibility to the neighborhood in which they vend,” all prove drags on local communities. It doesn’t help that business like Bennett’s also pay fees to local Business Improvement Districts (BIDS). BIDs also resent food trucks for using their streets but not paying into these quasi-governmental organizations. Representatives from these interests articulated their opposition to mobile food vendors at the meeting.  Unsurprisingly, many DC residents care less about these facts and much more about access to food.   Predictably, most attendees, even those with reservations, favored the arrival of food trucks in Georgetown.

Another Austin mobile stand by

How many food trucks maraud through DC streets? The numbers are unclear, but anywhere from 80  to 160.  Compare this to Austin, TX, a city 20% the size of the nation’s capital but a city in which over 1300 food trucks operate.  This proliferation of portable food led Nathan Bernier of KUT news to ask if Austin’s food truck market had become too crowded?” Austin implemented tighter rules in 2010 that included providing “proof of a state sales tax permit, passing a fire-department inspection and filing an itinerary of truck routes.” Yet, the number of mobile food vendors only increased. Food critics/writers/personalities like Andrew Bourdain, Michael Weaver or Andrew Simmern have dedicated blog posts and shows to mobile food vendors in Austin and Chicago but also less renowned cities like Minneapolis St. Paul. Like DC, Austin is a college town and capital (okay, of a state not a country, but remember, Texas was an independent nation once). While Austin provides the backdrop for movies like Richard Linklater’s arthouse classic Slacker, is it surprising that food trucks fit into the overall life of Austin more than it does cosmopolitan D.C.? Think about it: food trucks appeal to the right wing – their innovative and experimental business approach and embrace of free markets –  while those on the left feel good about the progressive image that ethnic foods and creative types bring. Yet, the debate strongly favors limitations due perhaps to a quirk of local DC politics, summarized nicely by City Paper writer Shani Hilton: “It’s a place where well-off locals, lacking an infrastructure to participate in national politics, have a long history of using back channel access to get their way.”   In March, the Mayor released a statement that he hoped regulations would be in place by the end of the calendar year.  As the Washingtonian noted “it definitely seems to indicate that the Mayor has no concern over the October 1 deadline whereby DC food trucks will be forced to pay sales taxes.”   Not a great deal for food trucks.

Whose got thumbs and digs food trucks? This guy.

Bring Georgetown Bacon Wrapped Collard Green Chinese Dumplings!

If many of the residents attending the February ANC meeting voiced approval so too did many of their commissioners voting four to one in favor of allowing food trucks into Georgetown via a pilot program based on the city’s new regulations.  The aforementioned Commissioner Bill Starrels lodged the lone dissenting vote.  Starrels raised the already mentioned issues of taxes, rats, and trash but added two others that raised eyebrows.  When told that the other commissioners saw no problem with food trucks operating in front of local condos, Starrels replied that the idea of trucks in front of a 2 million dollar condo was “outrageous.”  A few moments later, Starrels once again inserted class into the debate, asking if anyone wanted “a line of food trucks in front of our new multi-million dollar water front park.?”  As the Georgetown Metropolitan summarized:

Out of dismay that such rich people might wake up one day to see food trucks parked across the street from their $2 million condos serving people who don’t have $2 million condos, Starrels voted against the resolution for not being strong enough.

To be fair, it remains to be seen whether or not Starrels simply operated as proxy for said brick and mortar interests or if he truly sees food trucks as threat to property values? After all, Starrels would not be alone in carrying water for local business organizations and restaurants. City Councilmember Jack Evans represents Ward 2, an area that Carman described as “the most desirable for all vendors.” In recent years, Evan’s contributed significant efforts to limit the number of food trucks within his constituency.  His 2008 campaign depended in part on donations from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Perhaps, Starrel’s objections represent the fears of a smaller segment of the community concerned about the kind of people food trucks might bring, namely young people, specifically college kids, super specifically Georgetown students.  Anyone familiar with recent controversies regarding urban development and universities knows Georgetown U serves as a fault line for debate with local homeowners.   It must be noted that unlike the University of Chicago or Columbia University, Georgetown’s expansion involves well off middle and upper middle class homeowners rather than the working class and lower middle class populations that neighbor U of C and CU. A February City Paper article highlighted the tensions between the University and local residents.  Hilton pointed out numerous gripes that Burleith and West Georgetown homeowners lodged toward students, some reasonable, some less so. Having attended several development meetings in the area, ToM can assure readers that local residents do not want anymore students in their midst than necessary.  So food trucks might simply evoke this response from some members of the community like Commissioner Starrels.

The Cliche Food Truck

In general, perhaps the obnoxious sense of cool bestowed on trucks bothers some observers. In a recent podcast, pop culture writer and TV critic Andy Greenwald gave his on air partner Chris Ryan a hard time for the latter’s attempt to comment on the current “zeitgeist” of NYC. Having just moved to LA, New York’s immediacy meant Ryan didn’t have a clue, joked Greenwald,  “The new thing is artisanal ice cream sandwich trucks …. It’s all about peppered caramel dude.”  The image of a mustachioed Brooklynite blasting ASAP Rocky, the Cloud Nothings or Youth Lagoon in the background and commenting on how his ice cream sandwiches are local, organically produced, and wrapped in paper made by a multiracial group of senior citizens in a Bensonhurst nursing home paid 15 dollars an hour with 1% of proceeds going to marmot restoration seems clichéd at this point, but we all know where clichés originate. Besides, food trucks come in numerous shapes and sizes.  Drive down Arlington Road toward Falls Church, VA where you see food trucks serving immigrant and Native Virginians in unremarkable suburban parking lots.  Trucks with names like El Tutomaso and La Chocholita serve ethnic fair to crowds that look the furthest thing from annoying bohemian stereotype sometimes associated with mobile vendors. In San Diego and LA in convenience store parking lots and elsewhere. The construction worker in line for the fish taco, not a hipster.

For all the criticism lodged at trucks, they do create business for others.  Those Falls Church and San Diego trucks inhabiting empty parking lots are probably a net gain for local business, not a drag. On a more sophisticated level, City Paper’s Carman noted several trucks have one-day deals with local establishments that might bring a sort of symbiosis to the DC food industry.  For example, Leland Morris owner of the popular Red Hook Truck cemented one day deals with establishments in Cleveland Park and elsewhere so that customers that bought one of their  lobster rolls could then go into a local restaurant, coffee shop, or bar and receive a discount on drinks. “In this case, it’s not a truck poaching business from an established neighborhood,” commented Carman, “but an established neighborhood business gaining synergy via hugely popular new truck, which tells you something about how far the mobile vendors have come in such a short time.”  Is it any wonder places like Forbes and (a libertarian site) love food trucks?

Donkey Kong and Food Trucks

In the 2007 documentary King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, director Seth Gordon explored the controversy over just who owned the all-time Donkey Kong high score. Gordon portrays flamboyant feather haired hot sauce entrepreneur and long time record holder Steve Mitchell as the heavy battling to have soft spoken quiet middle school teacher and family man Steve Wiebe’s new record nullified.  Despite video taped evidence of his achievement, Wiebe struggles for recognition from the “gaming world establishment” (a nebulous population at best). However, as AV Club writer Keith Phippe pointed out, once Mitchell begins his political maneuvering to maintain his record holding status, the movie stops being about Donkey Kong:

At this point, Seth Gordon’s feature directorial debut mostly stops being about video-game obsession and turns into a film about what it takes to make it in America. Long the public face of classic gaming—though hardly a household name—Mitchell is perhaps too friendly with Walter Day, president of Twin Galaxies, an organization formed in the early ’80s to promote gaming and record high scores. When Wiebe attempts to claim the championship, he encounters roadblock after roadblock, and learns that even in this seemingly frivolous pursuit, there’s the entrenched power structure, and then there’s everyone else.

Sound familiar?  How else does one explain the opposition to food trucks when the general public – of all political persuasions – seems to love them? In a 2006 municipal survey, two thirds of respondents wanted more variety – ethnic and seasonal foods – and  healthier options. DC Vendors have more than 47,000 Twitter followers. When restaurant proprietors claim they steal business, how do we know that the same people who search out or frequent food trucks even want a sit down meal? Maybe someone just wants a lobster roll.

For better or for worse, consumerism seems to be an increasingly important marker of identity.  One can see this in plays like Clybourne Park or in the uproar over Chick-fil-A.  Sure, they can be a little too twee, a little too precious, but overall food trucks add cultural vitality, bring economic benefits, promote markets and can create colorful backdrops. D.C.’s apparent political bickering over them seems to have much more to do with power structures than real policies.   Fingers crossed that new regulations enable trucks to flourish in ways that make all parties happy and allow a growing industry in D.C. to boom. Now pass me the ginger spiced duck breast empanada please.