“Is that an ice-cream truck?” says a twentysomething seated on a park bench in DC’s Dupont Circle.
“Nah,” says his friend as she looked over her shoulder at the passing truck and its occupants dressed in brightly colored jumpsuits, turbans, and mustaches. “That’s something else.”
The Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, a three-parts-Washington/one-part-Seattle collaboration, are DC’s newest food cart: a “traveling culinary carnival.” Serving what they call Merlindian food—popular Indian dishes such as chicken masala served with big smiles and a few winks—the Fojols have quickly become an after-work favorite in Dupont and the late-night snack of choice for bar-hopping crowds at the intersection of 14th and U streets, Northwest.
The Fojols, two of whom are real brothers, not only dress up in funky costumes; they also go by their made-up Merlindian names: Ababa Du, Dingo, Dewpee, and Kipoto. So far, the head-turning shtick has served them well. In recent weeks, the Fojols have seen their following—thanks in large part to a Washington Post article—triple to more than 1,000 on Twitter, which the band uses to communicate its weekend whereabouts.
“For a city that’s so diverse, there’s really very few street vendors,” says Justin Vitarello, known to hungry passersby as Dingo. “We want to create a dynamic atmosphere and have a food experience that brings people together, whether it’s to sit around and talk about issues or dance.”
Vitarello, a graduate of St. Albans School in DC, got the idea for a food cart three years ago, but it wasn’t until May 2008 that he bought a beat-up tool-delivery truck in New Jersey that it began to take shape. He followed the purchase with a trip to a body shop in Baltimore, an information-gathering visit to Wisconsin’s Circus World Museum, and a nearly 20-hour journey to and from Detroit for costume parts in his weathered Volkswagen bus. Each aspect of the business has been carefully crafted through Vitarello’s eyes, from the Fojol emblem designed to look like a face to the truck’s rims painted by his mother and Mewsh’s Mango Pop, a mango-lassi popsicle named after his ex-girlfriend.
Vitarello, a volunteer for Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, introduced the Fojol Bros. to Washington at the inauguration. “Once I realized [Obama] was going to win, I took two months off to get everything ready,” he says. Getting ready included meeting with 12 Washington restaurants before deciding on the right chef to prepare the Fojols’ food.
The chef, who wishes to remain anonymous, cooks up a slew of hot dishes, including palak paneer, cauliflower and potatoes, eggplant, and a tasty chicken curry over basmati rice. The food, kept cool and hot as appropriate by the truck’s two generators, is served on biodegradable trays, which can be disposed of in the truck’s compost bin along with biodegradable sporks and recycled napkins. The Fojols plan to use a portion of the proceeds from the food to help fund at-risk youth programs.
“We want this experience to be a supplement to people’s iPods,” says Vitarello, whose food cart blasts everything from obscure circus music to danceable rock by bands such as MGMT and Phoenix. “That’s what it’s about,” he says, nodding to a couple laughing and dancing down the sidewalk. “We choose where we go based on the spaces we like. It could be next to a park or a couple of benches. It’s about bringing the community together.”
Peter Korbel, a.k.a. Kipoto, who recently quit his day job—the other three Fojols still have theirs—says he relishes the ease and creative freedom of running a business with friends. “It was Justin’s idea, and now we’re all on board to help bounce ideas off each other and build this brand.”
Vitarello and his crew of traveling pranksters will stop by Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market on June 27 as part of a community event to celebrate the market’s reopening. In the future, they hope to venture into more neighborhoods, stop at a Nationals game, and host a block party on U Street.
“It’s funny,” says Will Carroll, a.k.a. Ababa Du, “people always come up to us and ask, ‘Where is Merlindia?’ We say, ‘It’s right here.’ ”