Uh Oh, are BIDs Trying to Kill Food Trucks in DC?

Photo by PoPville flickr user ekelly80

It seems like every couple of days we’re hearing about a new food truck coming to DC. Could their days be numbered? Curbside Cupcakes mentions that some BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) are looking to put a stop to their success. They don’t mention which specific BIDs are behind the campaign.

A readers sends in a link to a plea from Curbside Cupcake’s Facebook page:

Dear Nation,

We need your help! Some local merchants and B.I.D’s are lobbying the City Council to limit or kill mobile food trucks in Washington, DC. They want change the law to stop us from being able to operate in DC. No more cupcake bliss right to your curb!!

In this fight, food trucks like Curbside Cupcakes, Fojol, DC Slices, Sauca, are the little guy and we need your help. Strong lobbying interests are working against us. We need to show City Council that DC wants a diverse base of vending options. Mobile trucks like Curbside Cupcakes and others are reaching out to you our friends, followers and families to help us so we can keep bringing you your cupcakes. Otherwise we could get shut down and shut out by larger interests, that have more money, power and influence than we do.

Will you please join our email campaign? DCRA is helping us by collecting comments on the new legislation. We need to collect as many emails in support of us as possible.

[email protected]

Heres a draft of what it could say:

Subject: I Support Title 24 Chapter 5

Dear City Council,

I am a customer of Curbside Cupcakes and I am writing to support the current proposed DCRA regulation Title 24 Chapter 5 that will allow mobile vendors to stay in DC and continue offering more choices and value. Please do not allow the introduction of any discriminatory language into these regulations. Please pass the regulations as written and protect the diverse vending options in the city.

Thank you,

Since food trucks have reached such a large following, it is not terribly surprising to hear some traditional lunch providers may be a bit upset. Think there is any possibility of successful legislation being passed to limit or kill food trucks in DC?

57 Comment

  • How could anyone argue with good food, good service and a clean truck? Let local biz thrive!

    • Every commercial property owner in the city….

      If you can serve decent food from a truck, why pay rent?

      • Your suggestion that property owners are running scared because they think every restaurant is going to run out and buy a lunch truck is a bit irrational.

        • Not exactly irrational if you are are the owner of an empty storefront in this economy. Given that, I think it’s more than a little misguided and counterproductive. The folks running these trucks are doing so precisely BECAUSE they don’t want the overhead that goes along with a sit down or take out storefront. Lower cost barrier to entry.

        • um, not at all irrational!

          Your comment is irrational.

          It’s not a case of “every” property owner losing “all” rentals. If a property owner is running on a 20% profit margin and they lose 20% of rent-paying restaurants their profit could go to zero

          • Which shouldn’t be a big deal in DC, where so many landlords are content to sit on empty commercial space. You are irrational.

        • Yes – Because the truck payments, insurance, maintenance and fuel are free.

          • Very nice straw man! How much would you like to wager that truck payments + insurance + maintenance + fuel < rent + overhead on a storefront?

      • If every commercial property owner in the city is jealous of the success of food carts, then let them go out and buy food carts! This is all pretty much common sense and one case where the market should definitely dictate the outcome. It’s pretty amusing how several of you are are virtually in tears over the wants and needs of commercial property owners, when you’re whining about the same exact people who are responsible for plenty of empty storefronts in your neighborhoods.

      • Last time I checked, these food truck owners had to pay quite a bit for their trucks, so it’s not like they have zero overhead.

        • I don’t think anyone is saying they have zero overhead, but the cost of operating these trucks is nowhere near the amount of overhead a storefront in downtown DC pays. Rent alone is probably in the tens of thousands per month (depending on location and square footage).

          • And because those renters made the decision to pay those tens of thousands of dollars per month instead of buying a food truck, we should all feel sorry for them and ban or tax the food trucks out of existence?

  • Look at the submitted comments from the Golden Triangle BID and “DC MAP” on the DCRA website with vending information: http://bit.ly/aqPK4Q

  • People who love these food trucks should endeavor to find out exactly which restaurants are trying to snuff them out, and organize a boycott against them. If they don’t want to play fair, then f**k ’em!

    • Probably not feasible and it’s not just the restaurants. Property owners are going to be upset too.

      I think there’s a reasonable argument for not allowing a food vending truck to set up shop on the curb in front of an existing restaurant. Other than that, good food is good food. Let the market sort it out.

    • I have heard that Curbside Cupcakes seems to have had problems with the Cosi on the corner of Penn and 3rd.

  • I know the Sauca truck has run into problems from businesses and cops in the area I work. Which is disappointing. I really hope that nothing happens to prevent their spread. Especially working in SW where there aren’t really very many options.

  • If this happens, then there is only one solution: Hunger Strike.

  • It’s a shame since I think these trucks are pretty cool.
    Definitely add an alternative to the typical “by the pound” salad bars that are prevalent in Downtown DC.

    That being said, where are these trucks based out of? I’ve never bought from one of them, so I’m not sure if they charge sales tax, or is sales tax even collected with this type of business? If these companies are based out of MD or VA I can see why local merchants and BIDs are complaining. They are poaching customers and the money is not staying in DC (if they’re based out of city limits). But like I said I’m not 100% sure on how these things operate and if they have to pay DC a fee to operate here or not. Even if they do have to pay a yearly license to operate, the fixed location eatery probably contributes more to the local economy…

    • How different is it, really, compared to a Subway or McDonald’s that drains money from the city too? I bet you that many of the owners of small cafes in DC live in MD or VA.

      As long as the trucks have DC sales tax, pay for DC vending permits, what financial difference is there with a fixed location? Heck, even the rent that a cafe pays could be “exported” to a landlord living elsewhere.

    • All the food trucks have to have permits and be registered with DCRA. Their drivers have to be licensed to drive commercial vehicles and be ok’d for food prep. You can’t just buy a 15 passenger van, install a grill, and start selling burgers out the window Downtown.

      They pay licensing fees and taxes.

      Each truck almost certainly brings less money into the city per customer than a casual bricks-and-mortar lunch establishment (Subway, McDonalds, Cosi, similar), but I think there is a reason that the city has decided to approve so many more food trucks in the last year: it’s a net benefit to the local economy.

      I get why the BIDs are worried, but I don’t sympathize. They need to adapt. And the individual lunch restaurants need to adapt. If I were, say, a Cosi, I’d be looking into upgrading the quality of my pastries, or offering pastries that appeal to cupcake haters (macarons? tastier simple effing cookies?). National chains have fewer options, but I think they tend to get a fairly different clientele for lunch. It’s more people on stricter budgets.

      The vendors that should be most worried are the stationary food carts Downtown. Except the Korean food guy on K St., because his food is one-of-a-kind and worth walking 2 extra blocks for.

  • I assume that the food trucks are collecting sales taxes and sending it to the DC treasury. I don’t see why the City Council would want to restrict them. Portland, OR has tons of food trucks, and even allows them to cluster in parking lots. Seems like a home run for the city and consumer.

    • The city council doesn’t operate on “normal rules” if it did, we wouldn’t have kids getting in 70 person fights at gallery place.

      The BID’s are going to put a ton of pressure on the city council and maybe even on Congress. This is a bottom line issue where money talks loudly.

  • It’s fairly simple. Brick-and-mortar restaurants cannot get away with serving overpriced, mediocre slop for lunch any longer if a food truck rolls up with something more appealing to area lunchgoers.

    • It’s more complicated than that when you factor in the cost of rent. It’s not a level playing field (not that I’m saying it should be a level playing field). If a chicken sandwich costs $2.50 (wholesale ingredient prices) and the average cost of a lunch is $5.00, but a lunch cart has $.50 operational costs and a restaurant has $2.00 operational costs (rent and overhead), then you can see that the margins are very different. That extra margin is going to the property owner, not the restaurant owner.

      • Exactly. I understand why the restaurants are complaining. Not only are they paying a very expensive rent because it’s store-front property in a “prime location”, but they’re most likely locked into a 7-10 year lease which is not that easy to walk away from. Commercial leases are a different beast than an apartment one rents.

        I think there was a similar problem with the hot-dog vendors back in the mid to late 90’s. There was basically one on every corner, but then they disappeared. Not sure what exactly happened but I think it was something to do with restricting new licenses.

        I hope something can be worked out to keep these guys around since they do add to the lunch landscape.

      • While what you say is true, many years ago I talked to a guy about investing in a restaurant and his whole business plan was to buy frozen food from costco, microwave it and put it in steam trays and charge $5 per pound for it. He was not interested in cooking for people NOR was he interested in his customers becoming obese. He simply was an exploiter.

  • Here’s my suggestion to those establishments who are opposed to food trucks: improve your quality. The most popular DC restaurants are ALWAYS packed, impossible to get a table at many places without reservations far in advance. The places who will suffer are those that aren’t providing quality fare at an affordable price.

    Interesting article from a year ago regarding similar sorts of fights happening in NYC:


  • I think it is an interesting question when you think of the rent aspect of it, as some readers have pointed out. When the food truck sets up in two our parking, it’s doing business on public property and not paying rent for that parking space. Or has this been addressed in their licensing? If not, it kind of constitutes an implicit government subsidy for the trucks. They pay NOTHING for PRIME location. So they can sell better food cheaper. DC’s excellent restaurants will be fine, but for those on the margins who pay high rents this may be the straw that breaks the camels back.

    Am I misunderstanding how this works?

    • this is taken into account in how they’re managed. This is a known local government issue going back 75 years.

      • So do they auction off licenses or something? I’m kinda interested! If so then I don’t think the restaurants should be allowed to gripe.

  • You know, if you went to places with large populations that don’t have access to good food (like EPA/DOC) you might do just as well, with less opposition from restaurantuers.

  • looks like the cupcake people are a little late. Public comment was due weeks ago.

  • It’s more than just rent/overhead. Any business in a BID pays an extra fee that goes towards the maintenance/upkeep of that area, which in theory makes the area more attacker to customers. Food trucks get to enjoy the benefits paid for by the permanent commercial properties, so you can see that isn’t fair.

    However, I don’t see how hard it could be to figure out a way for food trucks to pay into a BID in order to do X amount of business in that district. Banning them outright would be a loss for the BID.

    • What food trucks need to do is create their own BID and donate money to the council. My guess is that they hadn’t done enough of providing free food at campaign events and are blindsided by how the game is played. Well guys, this is how the game is played- lobbying.

  • If the city limits the number of mobile food counters and creates designated parking spots for them, it should work itself out… more desirable zones command more for the privilege to park in them, but you can’t park in the same spot within a zone for more than a day/week/# of weeks etc… will there be winners and losers, sure… aren’t there always.

  • What will happen is DC will limit the number of trucks, grandfather in the existing trucks, and you’ll have one or two business enterprises controlling the entire food truck business in the city. It will cease being the little guy and it will just be basically one restaurant group or two with a series of rolling eateries. The little guy always gets fucked in this town.

  • DC: The City That Says NO!*

    * bribes and insider dealing aside.

  • Why should they pay, when at most they are in the area for 1 – 2 hours tops. They pay the meter costs to park, and then they are on their way. Business is competitive, store fronts should get over it. Come up with something new to bring customers in. Like better food! Good service! In a timely fashion.

  • I for one have no problem with making these food trucks subject to strict licensing and operational requirements. Having grown up in Mexico City, I have seen what can happen as a result of having unregulated street vendors clogging city streets. Yes the food truck fad (and it is a fad) is great, but once it passes (and it will pass), we need strict guidelines in place to make sure that commercial vending on city streets is done is a safe and efficient manner.

    • Most informative comment, thanks! I hadn’t made the comparison to other cities (outside of the U.S.) where street vendors are indeed a nuisance. I must also say that these food trucks brighten up my day at a rather bland office job in the Golden Triangle, though, even if they are a passing fad.

  • screw restaurants. most of the time i want some food quickly, cheaply, and without of the fuss of waiter. world class cities have great (cheap) street food. i would eat out more if it was cheaper and street food would let me do that. why should i pay for your overpriced rent?

  • It is less, but the menu is smaller and the hours of operation are shorter as well.

  • Bless you Neener, and I mean that with no sarcasm whatsoever – the last of my garrulous old uncles with their endless supply of sometimes nutty, often tangential, but always entertaining stories are dead now, so I honestly enjoy your postings.

  • Its appalling that any business would try to legislate away their competition. If the food trucks weren’t providing better service or product, then people wouldn’t go there.

    The only legislation I would support is enforcement of crowd control. Some of the lines can get pretty long. I’ve seen curbside cupcakes crowd wrap around a block, blocking sidewalks and impeding traffic flow to other businesses. The fairness has to flow both ways.

  • i think it’s apparent what will happen. the city will place a limit on the number of food trucks allowed. then, the big restaurant groups in town will buy out as many of the trucks as they can and use them as extensions of their restaurants. Think Jaleo food truck. The Heights food truck. Basically they’ll just co-op the model. That’s how DC works. It’s a small, corrupt city. Easy to manipulate.

  • I see the unfairness of one business owner having to pay rent on a building for all hours and all days of the week and another just pulling a truck up for a 2 hour peak lunch rush.

  • What happens when all the restaurants that make our city a city decide to shut down and reopen operations from a truck parked outside of their former location?

    There has to be some type of licensing or restriction to entry to discourage random fly by night food trucks no matter how delicious their Mumbai Butter Chicken is… A medium needs to be found.

  • RIght in your backyard is a public interest lawfirm devoted solely to eliminating business protectionism. The had DC’s hairbraiding license requirements struck, eliminated the Las Vegas Cab monopoly, and have won victories all over in eminent domain disputes among others. If you can convince them that established businesses are trying to pass laws and regulations whose primary aim is to stifle competition, you may have some free, extreely good lawyers. http://www.ij.org (institute for justice)

  • Having an intimate working knowledge of food trucks in DC. The vans are completely licensed by all agencies and they get checked regularly. Local restaurants make sure of that. The vending vans are taxed quarterly for sales tax. They are also aren’t permitted to sell similar foods to brick and mortar stores within 60 feet. Look these brick and mortar restaurants have exclusive privledge to their locations 24 hours a day 7 days a week. These venders are only at a few locations through out the city for a few hours per day. During which time they sell there limited products and leave. As for the overhead. The people who own these trucks have invested tons of cash into them. It is their cash not corporate. These people are the complete little guy and big money is trying to force them out… Where is the since of cometition? Where is the free market? What is a crime are the food venders on the mall. They operate from a monopoly. DCRA not allowing new licenses in the mall area for vending spots should be a crime. New permits haven’t been issued in almost 20 years!!! You don’t hear people complaining about those venders do you?

  • All this talk about food is making me hungry. Off to lunch . . . .

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