This spring, advocates for food trucks will engage in a battle with brick-and-mortar restaurants. Caught in the crossfire are neighborhood residents and lunchtime diners, who have their own turf to protect.
The food fight began last May, when City Manager Rashad Young issued a series of recommendations that would open the door to food trucks in Old Town, Del Ray and Carlyle. That created a backlash among restaurant owners, who say their livelihoods would be threatened by competition from a group of people who are not part of the community and do not pay real-estate taxes. The proposal was withdrawn, and a task force was formed to come up with recommendations. Now, after dozens of meetings, those recommendations are expected in March.
"There are two sides to the argument," said Lynn Bostain, a member of the task force. "The restaurants say that they are not completely full at lunchtime, and food trucks would take away the business. On the other hand, food trucks say, it would bring more people into that area who would be coming in perhaps for a food truck but also for a restaurant."
Opposing sides have been able to agree on some issues, including allowing food trucks to part at the Hilton Mark Center to serve thousands of workers who are now working at the Washington Headquarters Service as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Some other points of consensus are allowing food trucks on private property, at farmers markets and in public parks. But members of the task force are deadlocked on thornier questions, including where the food trucks should be allowed.
"It might be an even split," said Old Town Civic Association president Yvonne Weight Callahan. "More people might end up favoring food trucks at the King Street Metro, fewer people favoring food trucks at the courthouse and even fewer people favoring food trucks at Gadsby's Tavern."
THE STAKES are high for restaurants, who have invested time and money in building a customer base in their local neighborhoods. Aside from the three locations in Old Town under consideration, task force members are considering three locations in Carlyle — John Carlyle Square Park, Dulany Street and Eisenhower Avenue. One location is under consideration in Del Ray, the stretch of Mount Vernon Avenue near the Department of Community and Human Services. Traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurants are prepared to put up a fight to prevent food trucks from encroaching onto their turf.
"What I'm hearing the restaurant guys on the panel are saying is that the zones should be very limited, so there would be no Old Town zones and no Carlyle zones," said "Mango" Mike Anderson, who owns restaurants in all three neighborhoods. "Where is this pent up demand for food trucks that is not being supplied by restaurants in Old Town or Carlyle or Del Ray? I'm just not seeing the need for it."
Meanwhile, the food-truck lobby is spoiling for a fight. Back in January, leaders of the Food Truck Association launched a new website to advocate for food trucks in Alexandria. They say it's difficult to stomach the argument that food trucks pose competition to traditional restaurants.
"There's not a single restaurant that has closed in D.C. because a food truck was parked on their block," said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, a member of the association. "What we've seen in D.C. is the opposite. Four new brick and mortar restaurants have opened in Farragut Square in the last 18 months, and that's probably the most popular food-truck destination in D.C."
RECENT YEARS have seen Arlington and the District become war zones where traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants have gone to battle with newer food trucks — in business and before elected officials. Last year, for example, Arlington County changed its rules for food trucks to do away with a one-hour limitation and now allows vendors to stay the entire length of two-hour parking meter cycle. Some say changing the city's restrictive rules might be a preemptive measure against legal action.
"Governments can favor one kind of business over another," said Callahan. "So if the food truck people think that the city is becoming too proprietary with the brick-and-mortar restarts and therefore protecting them at the expense of the food trucks, that's a ripe area for litigation."
Aside from location, several other issues are on the table for work group members to hammer out before they make a recommendation. One would be how many food trucks are allowed in a zone at time. The city staff had recommended three, and members of the committee haven't made any suggestion to change that. Then there are proposals to keep vendors 100 feet from residences and 20 feet from traditional outdoor dining. Perhaps one of the tricky issues aside from location is the hours they would be able to operation. One proposal from last year would allow them to operate from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"I have friends who tell me that they live near food trucks in Arlington or other places, and they love going to the food truck for dinner," said Bostain. "It would make sense to have that option for people if they want to eat from a food truck rather than a brick-and-mortar restaurant."