PoP-Ed: Food Truck Regulations by Kristi Whitfield of Curbside Cupcakes

Ed. Note: If you have a PoP-Ed you’d like published, send an email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail with a quick note about the topic you’d like to write about.

Mayor Gray: No Time for Delays. Send New Food Truck Regs to City Council!

By Kristi Whitfield
Co-Owner, Curbside Cupcakes

Curbside Cupcakes is Washington DC’s first mobile cupcake truck. When my husband and I maxed out our credit cards and refinanced our house to open Curbside Cupcakes in 2009, there were only a few food trucks serving the District. Since then our numbers have grown substantially because consumers appreciate and support the influx of new and innovative dining options that many food trucks offer. In light of our popular and growing industry of small business owner/operators, Mayor Vincent Gray has proposed new vending regulations that, while not perfect, are a major upgrade from what’s on the books now. If special interest groups succeed in pressuring the Mayor to send these regulations “back to the drawing board”, then fellow “truckers” like Curbside Cupcakes are in danger of not only losing our businesses but our houses and every nickel and dime we scraped together to make our dreams a reality. And all this over what? Competition. Our detractors say that food trucks are “stealing away” customers from storefronts. This attitude reflects a shocking sense of entitlement. Businesses don’t own customers. Businesses earn customers.

In 2010 the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) collected over 2,500 comments on a previous version of proposed regulations. Food truck opponents were more honest then about their concerns, which boiled down to not wanting to compete with food trucks; given the expenses that storefronts incur for brick and mortar shops they figure why should they have to compete with “outsiders” for customers. This position turned out to be very unpopular, so this time around opponents of the legislation say they have “concerns” about crowded sidewalks, limited parking and increased trash.

In our battle for survival, the food trucks are the little guy. Many food truck owners would have liked to start as storefronts, but most of us don’t have the personal or corporate wealth that would allow us access to hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in restaurant real estate. Lack of wealth should not limit my husband and me from spreading Cupcake Bliss to all areas of the District.

Continues after the jump.

When Sprinkles decided to open its DC brick and mortar on the same block as Georgetown Cupcake we didn’t hear anyone cry foul. Somehow if a company has enough money to afford the lease they are encouraged to compete. Especially in a recession, we must remove economic barriers, not build them up to exclude small businesses.

It’s ironic that mere months after the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) celebrated brick and mortar restaurants enjoying a gangbuster year, they are decrying the “unfair advantages’ that food trucks enjoy over storefronts. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of diners in the District every day, and there are enough customers for everyone. People love fun and innovative food concepts whether it is a sit down meal or curbside.

Any business out there needs to be prepared to compete. Curbside Cupcakes is not the only cupcake truck in town. There are other cupcake trucks and sweet trucks out at the curb with us everyday, and even more coming! We welcome the competition because when there is competition, everyone – most importantly the customers – benefits. Competition kills complacency and the sense of entitlement that leads to taking customers for granted.

Food trucks are a wonderful contribution to Washington, DC. We have taken dining wastelands and turned them into dining destinations. Food trucks have helped re-activate public parks that were woefully under utilized. Don’t forget … we are small businesses that pay rent, pay taxes and hire people — important economic drivers, especially in a recession.

It has taken years for DCRA to draft these new regulations. Every interested party has had a chance to chime in. Now is the time for action. Detractors want to send the city “back to the drawing board,” to limit competition and restrict how and where food trucks are allowed to operate. We hope the Mayor will not cave to these special interests. Parking, sidewalks, and trash are issues that can be addressed without stalling progress.

More than 3,000 supporters have written DCRA, the Mayor and City Council asking them to pass these regulations. Unfortunately, food trucks lack the political capital to protect ourselves from special interests and we need help. After years of conversations, hearings, and focus groups, “back to the drawing board” is the legislative equivalent of killing our businesses and stifling one of the fastest growing industries in the District. I hope Mayor Gray will take a stand for local, small businesses and for the best interests of customers in Washington, DC by submitting these regulations to City Council without delay.

43 Comment

  • I completely support food trucks, just wish you guys would help up to CH more often.

  • Very well presented. We need smart regulations that help create jobs and further competition. How about an email link to the respective offices or some kind of an on-line petition? I think the food truck owners will need to band together to fight this powerful lobby. Doing it one or two emails at a time probably won’t cut it. In politics, and particularly in this city, money talks.

  • There’s a place for both food trucks and restaurants in the city. That being said, if the Council is going to lean toward the views of either of them, I’d rather they protect the restaurants. After all, restaurants offer more than a place to go eat. There’s a socialization factor involved that a food truck cannot match. you don’t go to celebrate a big promotion or an anniversary at a food truck.

    Also, the editorial’s argument is deeply unconvincing. Painting food trucks as the small business little guys and restaurants as big business bullies is not being honest about reality. After all, many (if not most) DC restaurants are also small businesses and they employ more people and add more to the communities they serve. After all, if that were not true, why would there be constant calls for business openings in neighborhoods like Petworth, Shaw, Bloomingdale, etc.? The editorial is correct to state that customers must be earned and that competition is healthy, but implying that DC restaurants are not small businesses as well is just wrong.

  • How about a nice liscensing program that will cover the cost to pick up food truck customer’s trash and the cost to inspect the sanitary standards of the trucks?

    As for parking – how hard would it be to create a food truck parking permit system that will govern how many can park on a given block and provides the same meter revenue?

    Not rocket science here – simple and smart government. Get some council(wo)men and reps from restaurants, food trucks and citizens to sit down and hammer this out. Should only take a few hours and then a couple of hearings. But this is DC so we’ll spend a good year or two debating this and end up with a crap solution that won’t be applied fairly or evenly.

  • Disclaimer: I don’t own a bar or restaurant…

    This posting is completely disingenuous in a couple of ways.

    “Food truck opponents were more honest then about their concerns, which boiled down to not wanting to compete with food trucks”

    Wrong, I attended the numerous public forums used for public outreach, I’ve seen many of the comments.

    What you should have added at the end of your completely subjective sentence was…

    “…on an uneven playing field”

    1. There has been ONE single issue that DC brick and mortars (and private citizens like myself) have been advocating for, for the past couple of years, and thats food trucks collecting and remiting a 10% sales tax like every other bar restaurant does. The Food Truck association screamed bloody murder for the first year, despite the fact that they all already pay VA and MD sales tax, you whined about it killing your business in DC.

    Many private citizens and commercial entities (read, commercial office building owners) have also been pushing for street vendors to pay a BID tax. Street vendors are responsibe for an obscene amount of trash on the days they park in a neighborhood, trash that the local BID (funded by a tax on each and every business in that district) pays to remove. Having your competitors pay to beautify, landscape the streets you prefer to do business on, and remove YOUR trash in THEIR business district is the height of arrogance and just further illustrates how uneven the playing field is, and the unfair advantages you’ve been getting.

    No, brick and mortars don’t “own” customers, but you have to admit that all claims of fairness and equality go out the window when a food truck parks right in front of a brick and mortar, one of many downtown who rely on the lunch crowd to provide 70% of their revenue.

    Have you ever parked your truck on the street in front of Georgetown Cupcake? Maybe not, but that it precisely what its like and it happens daily.

    2. Your second whopper…

    “Don’t forget … we are small businesses that pay rent, pay taxes and hire people — important economic drivers, especially in a recession.

    Yes, you do all of these things, just NOT in the District. Curbside Cupcakes is a District registered business, good for you but nearly 70% of the registered Food Trucks registered to operate in DC, aren’t DC businesses. They come from MD, or VA (or NY). The vast majority of these businesses don’t pay rent, don’t pay taxes (income or sales) and aren’t employing District residents.

    I know the Food Truck business is near and dear to you, but you have to be able to stand back and look at it from a City standpoint or from the standpoint of any District resident who doesn’t operate a food truck (or brick and mortar). That point of view is…

    “Out of state business comes into town every day. They park in front of our businesses and funnel business from them. They sell their goods, create a bunch of trash that is left for the local businesses to deal with. They then pack up and go home at night, taking their profits home with them to be taxed there.”

    And finally I will add this food for thought. Of the grand total jobs within the District of Columbia, only 28% of them are manned with a District resident. The rest are jobs filled with “out of staters”, i.e, Va or Md residents. So the food truck lunch crowd is mostly VA or MD businesses selling to VA or MD residents. Where the city would typically get some tax revenue from a VA commuter buying lunch at a DC brick and mortar, now they just spend what little taxable money DC had access to, on a VA business.

    Anyway you look at it, DC, its treasury and its residents are getting “straight up jacked” by the status quo.

    • I have to agree with Joker on this one (I don’t own or work or have relatives or any association whatsoever with any restaurant, other than I occasionally eat in them). The PoP-Ed piece is so blatantly inaccurate as to be laughable. A level playing field it ain’t. If you want competition at least play by the same set of rules. Oh, and can I have my parking space back…please!

    • I totally agree. My taxes go to maintain the roads, sidewalks and trash pick-up used by food trucks. I, as a DC resident, shouldn’t have to subsidize your business, especially when you are not creating jobs for residents. As for taking dining wastelands turning them into destinations , has anyone seen a food truck in a “wasteland?” Seems like a bit much since most of the food trucks are around K Street and are targeting the lunch crowd.

      • Yep, the “wasteland” comment totally pissed me off for 2 reasons: (1) the vast majority of these so-called “food” trucks are located in and around downtown DC’s busiest areas, and (2) if there do happen to be some food trucks in areas such as Columbia Heights or Tenleytown that’s fine, but to then refer to these areas as “wastelands” is insulting. Ms. Whitfield owes the residents of DC an apology…… and back taxes!

    • Last year I paid around eight thousand for the BID tax. If I paid a trash company to empty the cans on my street it would be way less than that. I’m not a restaurant and my business does not generate any public trash. I won’t debate what the BID does and does not do but it would be nice if everyone with a business paid the BID tax so I feel less screwed.

      I could just set up a trailer in my parking lot and see what I saved in taxes.

    • Great post, joker.

    • Society subsidizes also sorts of things in order to promote competition, and competition from food trucks is increasing the quality and diversity of lunch meals. I’m for ’em. The food trucks are winning customers because the food is better, and, even more so, they bring variety. It’s not cheaper, and the convenience is the same, or even less, since there’s no seating. Overall, the QoL of downtown living is improved!

      I hear what you’re saying about taxation, and since I don’t think the taxes would scare customers, I support taxing food trucks. As for the rest of your arguments, you sound angry and I think you just got rubbed the wrong way and need a cupcake.

    • Joker, how many DC gov employees are from the District? What percentage of DC waitstaff and bartenders live in the District? What percentage of Lawyers, Lobbyists and Liars earn a living downtown and don’t live in the district?

      If you are going to make the case, bring the numbers.

      • I already gave you the stat above in my ~12:30 posting, though I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

        72% of all positions of employment in the District are held by outside people.

        Untaxable income has long been a problem, but the businesses that employ these people pay DC corporate tax, pay BID taxes, pay rent or property tax.

        The 70% of DC Food trucks which aren’t DC registered businesses don’t contribute any of the above monies, AND they aren’t employing DC residents or paying the sales tax.

        So again I ask, what is your point? That because the majority of DC jobs are currently filled with residents of other states, that we should just also give all out of state businesses carte blanche as well?

        • JOKER –
          Just curious, where did you find the statistics that 70% of the truck owners are not District residents?

        • They do pay taxes to the district, it’s not a one on one sales taxes but they are taxed and fees are paid. It’s no different than a corporation being registered in Delaware and doing business in the district but being covered by Delaware tax haven. Your “tax argument” is weak and uninformed at best.

  • claire

    I support food trucks AND I support restaurants. I think that they fill different needs; food trucks provide quick, fast, cheap food while restaurants provide (as mentioned by a previous commenter) sit-down socialization with a whole atmosphere. The best way for restaurants to combat food trucks, if they are worried, is to provide some of the things that food trucks can’t – a comfortable place to sit, great waitstaff refilling your water, and/or a relaxing (or exciting or trendy or whatever) atmosphere.

    I do agree with joker about the often-overlooked issue of DC sales tax. I fully support food trucks paying DC sales tax on food sold in the district and, if I am not mistaken, that is actually one of the new regulations. I recall reading that they would have to couple this regulation with changes to how they license the vendors (as currently each person working in a food truck must be licensed, rather than the truck itself – meaning that each licensed person working would have to pay the sales tax (cumulatively)) – but don’t quote me on that.

  • am I the only one to find the “spreading Cupcake Bliss to all areas of the District” line a bit rich? While I’m sure they cater to a broader portion of DC, I’m pretty sure they don’t set up shop for vending east of the river.

    • I just had to check this one cause I know Big Chair used to be one of their stops. They don’t seem to stop east of the river anymore, but they used to. Not sure why they stopped, perhaps lack of business there, but it’s not as if they did not try.

      • ok , but even if they get points for hitting historic Anacostia, think of the poor deprived swathes of Wards 7 and 8 denied cupcake bliss

  • The author would have been better served to shorten this “editorial” into a rant:

    Rant: The DC council won’t promise to subsidize the short-term fad business I foolishly invested my life savings in.

    P.S. Restaurant owners are mean!

  • What does it say for our downtown lunch options when amateurs can literally cook up better alternatives in the back of a old bus. All of the $10 salad and sandwich joints need to go under and the food trucks are helping with this.

    Restaurant owners are mad because they now either need to lower prices or actually make decent food? Get over it.

    • Not sure a $7 grilled (barely there cheese) from the back of a trus is any better than a $10 salad. Just saying…

    • +1 I’m right in the middle of downtown and I’m surrounded mostly by delis all serving the same thing on their giant salad bars and from their sandwhich “grills.” It gets old, fast.

    • This comment is ironic, considering a new food truck hit the streets a couple days ago (Pepe) selling $20 dollar 8 inch sandwiches.

      I have only tried 5 or 6 food trucks over the past couple of years, but I can say with certainity, none of them were cheaper than the nearby brick and mortar options. Different maybe, but certainly not cheaper.

      Which makes “not” paying a sales tax or a BID tax even more mind bending.

      • I’m not sure a truck owned by the reigning James Beard Outstanding Chef selling sandwiches with Jamon Iberica is typical, though.

        • Ok, how about a $15 dollar lobster roll or a $9 dollar serving of mac and cheese, or a $10 rueben?

          The above prices of course don’t include any sides or drinks.

          Maybe I am an old fuddy duddy but I’ve never spent more than 9-10 dollars in one of the cities many street delis/buffets and atleast I’ve gotten a drink with it.

          The $20 dollar sandwich may be a slight outlier, but not by much.

          • @joker Oh, I’m not saying food trucks are some kind of amazing deal – some are, some aren’t. Just saying the $20 sandwich at Pepe isn’t exactly typical.

            @theheights I don’t think anyone is under the impression that Jose is cooking their meal at any of his restaurants. Have you actually had any of the sandwiches you’re claiming aren’t worth what’s being asked? Because everyone else seems to think they’re fantastic.

        • Jose Andres might own the truck, but he’s not making the food. Just like at Jaleo, you’re paying “James Beard Award Winner” prices without the quality.

  • I think all Ms. Whitfield has done is stirred up all the anti food-truck sentiment in this town. So much for making her point.

  • Wow, a lot of vitriol here about food trucks. i haven’t sent a letter to the Mayor or City Council, but i may now. For me, and a lot of my co-workers downtown at Unnamed Federal Government Agency, it really is a lunchtime wasteland. The crummy cafeteria or a couple nearby subway/salad bar places are the only options – or they were, before the trucks showed up, that is. Now virtually every day i can go outside and find something tasty at comparable prices and vastly better quality, with 3-5 options virtually every day. It’s a huge improvement in my day, and i for one will be pissed if this changes because some businesses are peeved at competition.

    Should they pay taxes, or charge for tax? yeah, probably, i could live with that. Otherwise, let the brick and mortar restaurants compete.

  • Focus seems to have shifted to price and away from the fact that mom pop restaurant is no different that the small business food truck,They both lease space buy products cook and sell,But in the end the mom pop restaurant is held to a much higher standard and pays much more in taxes,insurance,local utilities not to mention they create jobs for DC residents.

    I would agree that it’s tough for any small business in this town but why should food trucks have it easier than the local?

  • I am a resident of VA that works in the District. I am sick and tired of people claiming that the restaurants are getting the shaft. I just went to a restaurant nearby and was told that our group from the office had exactly 50 minutes to eat & vacate the tables because we did not have a reservation. We agreed and we ate at the restaurant. There were food trucks nearby, but I don’t always go to the trucks because if I want to sit down for food… I go to the restaurants for that. Each business model caters to customers needs and there is room for restaurants and food trucks to co-exist. If a restaurant is full and takes reservations but accommodates customers that walk in with a clear understanding of the stipulations involved, then that restaurant is clearly successful. If on the other hand, a restaurant serves the same old food they’ve been serving for the last 20 years and not change to the customers demands, then they should look at their menu and do something to be competitive. There’s a reason why restaurants fail at a high rate… they do not deliver what the customer wants. I have a very limited time for lunch, so having the option to choose from the diverse variety of food trucks gives me another alternative to the fast food franchises, boring sandwiches, and the buffet style food by the pound restaurants. I understand there are two sides to every story, but as an office worker with an indifference to food trucks or restaurants, I sure hope that the option for me to choose how I spend my money on lunch does not become limited. Just my 2 cents on this issue. Peace & have a good day 🙂

    • 2cents you’re lumping every sit down restaurant into one..I doubt the 30 mins or less luncheonettes that line K street are even affected by food trucks.Not to mention you seem to be missing the point entirely.Nobody wants the food trucks to go away just to play by the same rules as everyone else.

      I think having the same food for 20 years would mean they’re doing something right IMO..Leasing a truck and selling tacos would hardly break you if it went under.However taking a loan out against your home to start a restaurant that fails would cripple most people.

      • I agree that if a restaurant has been doing the same thing for the last 20 years along side competition, then I would say they are successful. However, when there is little or no competition, then that same restaurant has had an unfair advantage because they were the only game in town. Now comes a little competition, and they cry foul when they have to step up their game? I agree that food trucks, hotdog carts, street vendors, souvenir hawkers, etc. should all pay taxes to the city. Even if food trucks collect taxes, it won’t stop me from patronizing them. I will gladly pay for Quality Food that breaks the gastronomic monotony that was DC before the food trucks arrived.

      • Coco, food truck owners don’t just lease a truck and buy some tacos and head out into the wild to undercut competition. Food trucks are required to maintain a separate commercial kitchen and insurance policies very much like the brick and mortar counterparts. In many ways having a food truck is like owning 2 separate businesses without many of its advantages. You can only operate for 2-3 hours at a time, you cannot serve alcoholic beverages, you get inspected much more often, among other differences. My point being, “even playing field” does not apply to two different businesses. Yes, they both sell food. No they cannot possibly ever be “level” because of how different they are. Yes, some times I pay more for food truck food than I do at eateries around my office (my only alternative is quizznos, which I hate).

  • Food trucks dont pay sales tax. That is a ten percent increase on the margins of whatever product they sell. This is a huge competitive advantage. Until they start paying sales tax (hopefully soon), it is hard to take their claims that they are being unjustly prejudiced against seriously.

  • How do you call 18 competitors suddenly appearing within 200 feet of your door “a little competition”?? You are paying downtown rents, and suddenly find yourself adjacent to a food court? Maybe you say, who cares? It’s competition, that’s life, so they lose their $ 2-300,000 investment?
    Doesn’t seem fair to me. Food trucks are great, and add a lot, but it seems only reasonable that there be limits and that they be managed in some way.
    If Ms. Whitfield and her truck colleagues want to spread their bliss, be it cupcake or some other kind, all over the District, that sounds great. The reality, however, is that they all want the best locations, so rather than being all over the District, you find 18 trucks at Faragut square, leaving their trash for others to pick up.
    And stop whining about the sales tax. You really lose me on that one.

    • Nobody cares about the sales tax, I would gladly pay it. The average consumer will not nickel an dime their food options based on an extra dollar that isn’t even going to the restaurant. And I take my lunch bak to my office. Would you argue as well that the food truck should pay a portion of my office’s waste management so they’re not “unfairly funding competition” in favor of food trucks? public waste removal is not exclusive to waste left by food trucks, and it’s a stupid argument to make to demonize the food truck vendors.

  • Not sure why the sales tax argument is getting so offhandedly dismissed. DC sales tax is actually 15 percent. If two businesses have the same product, and one can charge the consumer 15 percent less than the other, then it is sort of a big advantage. Obviously this matters less with lower priced items, as maybe no one really cares about 50 cents, but some food trucks are selling items that range from $15-20. It adds up.

    People have price benchmarks when they go to eat. While the difference between $9 and $10.35 or whatever the math works out to is only a little over a dollar, customers are more apt to remember that they spent over $10 for the meal.

  • The arguments by Joker and others are so ridiculous. First of all, the DC Food Trucks Association is on record saying that they would support a bill that changed the tax laws for vendors in the city and start collecting 10% sales tax from their customers. His statement that they screamed bloody murder is a complete lie. The only problem is that the current way that food trucks are licensed doesn’t allow for taxing in that manner. The new regulations need to pass first so that mobile vendors are licensed as businesses not sole proprietors, THEN the sales tax update can be put into place without any contest from the food trucks. There isn’t a food truck business out there nor the DC Food Trucks Association that have ever said they weren’t willing to pay the 10% sales tax. As it stands currently; mobile vendors in DC pay all of the taxes and fees as prescribed by the DC govt, so any anger directed towards the Mobile Vendors is completely unjust. They don’t make the rules folks they just follow them.

    On Out of state business operators:

    This means literally nothing. It’s the most false and silly argument I can fathom. It’s the same exact thing as saying the owner of a boutique clothing store in Dupont Circle and living in VA or MD should be unwelcome to add to the community. Are we saying that you can’t be an owner of a business in DC unless you live there? DC’s mobile vendors have DC BUSINESS LICENSES that’s one thing we can be sure of without a doubt. You can argue on the sales tax issue which we just covered in the above paragraph but other than that there is no difference. DC mobile vendors are still required to pay the 10% corporate tax on profits, expensive licensing fees (for each manager), health inspection fees, vendors fees, and more directly to the district regardless of where their owner resides or where they park their trucks. Soon, it looks like they will collect/remit 10% of their sales to the DC govt as well, which is fine. I’ll bet 80% of fast-casual restaurant owners in the DC central business district reside outside of the district. Are we going to chastise them? The owner/franchisee of a fast casual restaurant lives in Arlington? WHAT A TRAVESTY! THEY ARE TAKING MONEY OUT OF OUR CITY! So silly/makes no sense….

    If the restaurant lobby is talking about “unfair” competition, then they are talking about limiting the constitutional right to free enterprise. Competition isn’t fair by nature. It’s not fair the one person was born with more skill and creativity to offer people better food options than the next person? Should we level the playing field on skill and creativity?

    If they are talking about sales tax (which seems like most of the chatter here) then the issue will be solved with the vendors once the regulations are updated.

    Either way, it’s not that complex of an argument. As a DC resident who was born and raised here I don’t care who stays or goes as long as the consumers decide and not the government. I’ve never seen a press release from DC’s food truck association saying anything about compassion. I’ve seen many from the restaurant lobby. Case closed…all you people are trying to get the government to protect you but guess what that’s not their job. I’m more inclined to side with the folks that are talking about protecting consumer interests NOT protecting their own interests.

    BTW, It’s pretty obvious that Joker is the leader of a special interest group who speaks on behalf of businesses, NOT consumers. He may not be lying when he say’s he’s not a restaurant owner, but if he represents them it’s pretty misleading isn’t it…

    • Yea, right. DCFTA supports sales tax on food truck sales. what a load. It’s more like “meet our demands, and we are agreeable.”. Let them come out and say: “we unequivocally, and unconditionally support sales taxes being charged on food truck sales”. That wont happen, because they are clearly as adept at these political games as the restaurant association.
      As I said earlier, trucks are great, be they from MD, VA or DC. I do think it is a mistake, however, to allow them to go anywhere, wild, wild west style. It would seem they might would benefit from the certainty of having a place to go which some rules could provide, while restaurant businesses might not have to be subjected to 10 trucks right outside their doors.
      All this hysteria on both sides is ridiculous. It would seem some reasonable balance could be achieved. Is it really that neither side will consider compromise, or is it one side that is being obstinate?

      • DCFTA is speaking for consumers choice and free enterprise, RAMW is trying to have the government protect their business interests from new innovative ideas that they can’t keep up with. Consumers should win, no compromise should be made. If people don’t want food trucks, they’ll all go out of business which is the way of the world. Restaurants will never go out only the weak ones. That is the way it’s supposed to be.

Comments are closed.