“Food Truck Rodeo” is a bit of a misnomer. The event outside Southern Towers on Seminary Road did have several food trucks, but there were also two clothing boutique trucks, a homemade jewelry store, and a mobile skateboard shop. Despite the diversity of food and products being sold, the owners of the store all expressed one thing in common: doing business in Alexandria is a nightmare.
While each food truck and mobile boutique owner expressed support for special events like the rodeo, most were critical of the restrictions in the city’s food truck program.
In May 2014, City Council adopted a pilot program that allowed food trucks into the city, but only in off-street locations on public or private property. Eighteen vending locations were approved, all outside parks, recreation centers, and other public facilities. The program was set to run from July 2014 to December 2015. However, one year later, there are only five food trucks licensed to operate in Alexandria.
The Friday, June 5, event was hosted by the West End Business Association in an effort to raise awareness for business opportunities in the western part of the city. Without specifying where, Lynn Bostain, president of the West End Business Association, said certain other parts of Alexandria were extremely hostile to the idea of food trucks and other mobile stores on the city streets.
“So we said ‘bring them to the West End,’” said Bostain. In the event’s first year, the Food Truck Rodeo brought in 3,000 visitors. This year, Bostain said the event drew between 4,500 and 5,000 visitors to the event’s 10 food trucks and four specialty trucks.
“Some people have a bad perception of food trucks,” said Bostain, pointing out several trucks that have professionally trained chefs trained at culinary institutions, “These are not fly-by-night operations.”
Most of the Food Trucks are based out of Washington D.C.
“We originally wanted to do pizza, but then we found out about D.C. Slices,” said Patrick Rath, referencing another food truck present at the rodeo. As one of very few food trucks operating in the city, Rath decided not to get into direct competition with another vendor. When Rath started on Dec. 10, 2010, there were only 12 other food trucks in D.C. Now, there are nearly 250, with plenty of overlap in offerings.
Big Cheese offers a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches, from the more traditional Full Vermonty (cheddar on sourdough bread) to the Mindoro Blue (blue cheese with fig spread, walnuts, and honey on multigrain bread). Before starting Big Cheese, Rath managed restaurants. While working in restaurants, Rath was surprised to discover how easy it was to get quality cheese, thus the truck’s motto: craft, not Kraft.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Rath. “People think we just roll up on the street and open a window.”
Rath said the trucks face constant mechanical issues. They also have to buy specialized equipment in the winter months to keep the pipes from freezing, and even that’s just to make enough profit to break even. Still, Rath insists that it’s “better than a real job.”
The first Food Truck Rodeo was Rath’s first time bringing the truck to Alexandria. Other than another annual food truck rodeo and barring a change in legislation, he’s not sure there will be a second time.
“The regulation structure and permitting in Alexandria makes it unfeasible except for special events,” said Rath.
Rath’s sentiments are shared by almost all of the other truck vendors at the rodeo.
“We just come for special occasions,” said Zachary Graybill, general manager at the same DC Slices. “I would love to come into Alexandria, but it’s too restrictive. I talked with the City Council before and we’re open to the idea.”
DC Slices began six years ago out of a conversation at a bar. DC Slices was one of the city’s three original food trucks and is the only one of them remaining. The company began with one truck and one oven. Now DC Slices has three trucks with their own ovens and fryers. The company recently expanded into tater tots.
“It’s nostalgic and fun,” said Graybill, “so, hey, why not.”
Like Rath, Graybill said that most people he talks to don’t understand the amount of work that goes into running a food truck.
“We end up spending more time tearing things apart and cleaning more than a restaurant,” said Graybill. “For a three hour lunch, we spend six hours of preparation and cleaning.”
Graybill also said the inside of the trucks can get very uncomfortable. On a summer day, it can reach 120 degrees inside the truck. During festivals and special events, like the food truck rodeo, there are three employees working inside a very confined space.
“Teamwork is crucial, it’s a fine dance,” said Graybill. “But we’re also all helping each other.”
While similar in concept, the mobile boutiques face their own set of problems.
Jeremy Brandt-Vorel wanted to open a skateboarding store, but couldn’t afford a brick-and-mortar store. After looking around on Craigslist though, Brandt-Vorel discovered that he could afford a bread truck. It took six months to open The Board Bus, his mobile skateboard store, most of which Brandt-Vorel said was permitting.
“All of the different permits are challenging,” said Brandt-Vorel, “You have different forms for each city, each county, each state.”
Even once Brandt-Vorel had his permits, getting insured was still a major hurdle. As a mobile boutique, the Board Bus isn’t categorized as a food truck, but it also doesn’t have a clear category of its own.
But Brandt-Vorel says the job has its rewards too. Brandt-Vorel said children and teenagers are always excited to come into the shop, but that his favorite moments are when he can show parents that skateboarding isn’t just for “kids smoking pot.”
The Board Bus travels around Wakefield, Annandale, and Arlington, but specifically avoids Alexandria.
“Alexandria is very against mobile retail,” said Brandt-Vorel. “We talked about showing up at a skatepark on Duke street, but the city won’t allow it.”
Donna Hundley, who runs the Curvy Chix Chariot parked next to the Board Bus at the Food Truck Rodeo, agreed that Alexandria isn’t any friendlier towards mobile boutiques than it is towards food trucks.
“I don’t even try to sell in Alexandria,’ said Hundley. “We can’t vend on public streets here, we have to do it on private lots and partner with local businesses. It’ll get there, and I understand the hesitation. This truck is two parking spots, and those are people paying rent who can’t park in that location. So we can’t park just anywhere [in Alexandria], we can only go to festivals or certain yard sales to sell on private property.”
Hundley started Curvy Chix Chariot in 2013. Attending an event where she’d met Michael Jordan, Hundley began shopping for clothes to wear only to be disappointed with the available selection. Like Brandt-Vorel, Hundley had originally hoped to open a store location, but discovered that the costs were prohibitively expensive, but then heard that a shoe brand was opening inexpensive mobile stores to sell their products outside of strip clubs.
Hundley said that one of the most difficult parts of her work is educating the public about how to charge mobile stores for events.
“They want to charge us like a food truck, where we’re charged by the visitor,” said Hundley. “But 80 percent of visitors buy something when they go up to a food truck. Only 30 percent wind up buying something when the come here.”
Hundley said it can be frustrating to deal with preconceived notions regarding mobile boutiques, especially when it seems to her that there are several advantages to the city. As much as Hundley recognized the inconvenience of having two parking spaces taken up by a truck, Hundley also suggested that these mobile stores could be a good way of allowing stores to test markets at places like Landmark Mall where retailers have traditionally been hesitant to invest.
“Trucks could be a great way to test markets,” said Hundley. “We could set up a mobile mall for 60 days and larger stores could bring in smaller, mobile versions. If it goes well, eventually we could get more investments back in brick and mortar stores.”