The Vendor Revolution Is A-Brewing

New laws bring new flashy new lunch carts to downtown DC.

The gleaming, high-definition stainless steel cart (with a wingspan for added counterspace) at the 15th Street and Vermont corner looks nothing like the half smoke-selling one across the street.

The cart belongs to Marcus Lopez and Moses Chavez—both laidback mid-twenty year olds from Miami—and symbolizes the revolution in street vending for Washington. They are the first examples of what a decision back in October to allow brand-new food carts city-wide, reversing a former moratorium, might bring.
 Mo-Joe Coffee is the cart's name (complete with a real logo) but the two officially-trained baristas behind the counter—they earned brewing and cupping "degrees" from a North Carolina program—are peddling more than "American coffee" (the traditional drip) or café con leche (Cuban-inspired, with a shot of caramel). Borrowing a family recipe from Lopez, the two also offer a six-buck jerk chicken caesar salad. Lopez's father marinates the chicken for at least twenty-four hours, then chops up the breast and tosses it with Parmesan shreds over romaine lettuce. The taste? "Not bad," according to Todd Kliman, the Washingtonian's Dining Editor. About a half hour later, Kliman said he was still tasting it. Talk about potent. A pita sandwich version is premiering soon.

For Chavez and Lopez, the notion of taking a vending cart upscale has been in the works for three years. But it wasn't until Lopez arrived  from Miami three months ago that the project began in earnest. With Washington's "Phased-In Program," rotating new laws over 90-day intervals, most vendors won't appear until summer.

But Chavez and Lopez were lucky. A family friend and former half-smoke vendor at the 15th Street and Vermont spot, "grandfathered" the space to them. Burned out on the business then, she has since become a member of the Mo-Jo Coffee "team," plotting innovations before competition hits.

Back in January, Chavez and Lopez tested the business for less than a week; vendor police immediately busted them. The partners had wondered if the fancy-looking cart would eventually draw attention (in a bad way). Especially with veteran vendors—not always friendly with younger competition—lurking. Prematurely shut down, Chavez and Lopez spent most of February pitching plans to committee members and filling out paperwork. They never questioned the added effort for a second.

Now with over one week under their belt (as official, legal vendors), Lopez and Chavez are even discussing oatmeal as a possible menu addition. And smoothies in the summer. "We're really just waiting for it to warm up—that's when we can get creative," said Lopez. For now, they've got a small plastic case of cake donuts, apple danishes and other baked goods, picked up daily (before dawn) from Mount Pleasant's Heller's Bakery. Heller's is the same spot that supplies Dean & Deluca, which later jacks up the price.  

Positioned within a two-block radius of three Starbucks shops, the two realize that handing out free espresso shots is vital. Especially with well-suited professionals—the Export-Import Bank faces them and the White House is just a few blocks away—constantly passing by. Chavez, without flinching, swears by his blend of Jamaican Blue Mountain and Arabic beans, even when compared to the multinational Seattle-based vendor nearby.

No cash on-hand? No problem. This is a new-age vendor service. They have a wireless credit card machine.

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