Seventeen food trucks parked around Farragut Square on Monday, but no tacos or cupcakes passed through their service windows, which remained stubbornly shut throughout the midday-meal hours. Members of the Food Truck Association staged the protest, billed as A Day Without a Food Truck, in opposition to pending regulations and to give customers an idea of the dining landscape—or lack thereof—that might result if said laws were passed.
The name plays on the satirical indie movie A Day Without a Mexican, which imagines life in California if all the Mexicans disappeared in a magical pink fog (spoiler alert: hell breaks lose). While the loss of food trucks may not result in societal breakdown, vendors see the most recent set of regulations proposed by mayor Vincent Gray to be as devastating as the film’s corrosive cloud. Truck owners and their supporters passed out informational packages on the streets to passersby, highlighting particularly harmful restrictions such as banning food trucks from areas with less than ten feet of open sidewalk—of which, they argue, there are few—and forcing them into a lottery for a limited number of assigned spaces. If passed, many vendors believe these new limits will effectively kill the food-truck industry in the District.
Detractors say food trucks reap economic benefits from the city without giving back, and hold an advantage over their brick-and-mortar brethren because they’re virtually free from taxes; an idea that the association actively disputes, citing sales taxes, vehicle taxes, payroll taxes, and taxes associated with the required brick-and-mortar commissary kitchens. The message echoed by many vendors is that their opponents’ arguments, like those from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington are designed to force out the trucks.
“It’s not the public space or trash in the parks,” says Kristi Cunningham Whitfield, who owns the Curbside Cupcakes truck with her husband, Sam Whitfield. “Those are red herrings because they don’t want to say the honest truth: ‘We don’t want competition.’”
For its part, the RAMW distributed a memo this past Friday outlining its views of the current situation. A spokesman for the organization says members are in favor of the new regulations, but not as a tool to crush the mobile industry. Instead, they see the new laws as a general framework from which workable regulations can be established for both permanent eateries and trucks.
“We think that the picture the Food Truck Association has painted isn’t really true to what has been discussed,” says Kyle Rees, communications manager for the RAMW. “It makes some very big assumptions about what the regulations say. . . . We don’t want to limit competition. We never wanted to have a really big fight about this. The idea that it’s one group of businesses versus another is kind of ridiculous. We’re all after the same thing, which is making sure people are eating out in DC, whether it’s a food truck or a restaurant. It’s unfortunate that we don’t see eye to eye on this, but it’s about setting up a framework. We have a lot more in common than people are acknowledging.”
Rees points out that the RAMW includes restaurants like Rocklands and José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, which both have mobile operations. The DCFTA also holds up Andrés, who edged into the street scene with the Pepe truck, as an example of one of many open-minded business owners. Many of the trucks circling Farragut started as mobile operations and eventually raised enough funds and loyal followers to open permanent eateries in the District, among them Porc (Kangaroo Boxing Club) and Union Market vendors TaKorean, DC Empanadas, and Curbside Cupcakes. Others, like Craig Barsi of That Cheesecake Truck, broke into mobile vending after owning a brick-and-mortar. Barsi, who also oversees the 20-year-old Sweetz Cheesecake in Gaithersburg, says he wanted to assess customer demands in DC before settling on a permanent District property. (He is now actively looking for a space.)
“This movement really helped us achieve our goals and dreams,” says Sam Whitfield. “It’s really insulting to hear that if you don’t have a couple million dollars to open a restaurant, you don’t deserve to have a business. You don’t own your customers—you earn them.”
“Let customers decide,” Kristi adds. “Do you want TaKorean, or do you want Subway? One day it may be one or the other, but that shouldn’t be the government’s decision.”
While no other major events are planned by the Association this week, a public roundtable is set for Friday at 11.