The following PoP-Ed. was written by Craig Barsi. Craig is Co-Owner of Sweetz Cheesecake and That Cheesecake Truck.
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Why My Brick-and-Mortar Bakery Opened a Food Truck
It was 1988, and I was working as an accountant in the District and knew there had to be something more fulfilling than what I was doing. My love has always been food – especially sweets – so I knew this was the direction to go. My wife and I raided our savings accounts, and with the generosity of family, the Sweetz Cheesecake bakery was born.
Those first few years we spent peddling our cakes to Washington area restaurants and hotels. Our business grew, and in 1992 we opened our retail shop in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In 2000 we added a fundraising component to our business and have been steadily helping schools and nonprofits since.
When I started to look to expand or possibly move our bakery to the District, the high-priced rent, steep fees and bureaucracy gave me pause. Taking risks is part of any business, but I had to wonder if in this case it was worth it given that we were happily operating where we were.
However, the idea of a food truck captured my attention. Imagine being able to roam around a city and develop a clientele neighborhood by neighborhood. It wasn’t until 2011 when I brought my son-in-law on as a partner that I had the trusted manpower and energy that I needed! That Cheesecake Truck was born. Today “Big Blue” serves hundreds of cheesecakes across the District every week. That Cheesecake Truck also gives 10 percent of sales to charities we believe in. This is a sacrifice for us, as it would be for any food establishment, but we do it because this city has given me the ability to raise a family and build a business that one day I will pass along to them.
For my business, our food truck provided a way to test the market and build a brand and customer base, and it has convinced me that we could open a successful brick-and-mortar store in the District.
I’m one of a growing number of Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington members who started as brick-and-mortar businesses then opened a food truck. Like my colleagues who started as food trucks then grew into brick-and-mortar restaurants, I believe that regulations that stifle entrepreneurship and put at risk hundreds of jobs are not just bad for food trucks, they’re bad for all small businesses.
If Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed regulations for food trucks are adopted, they would force us into a limited number of lottery-assigned spaces in the most popular areas, ban food trucks from operating within 500 feet of those spaces and prohibit downtown vending where there is less than 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk.
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As the Food Truck Association wrote in our letter of comment last week, we support much of the proposed regulations, including keeping the current Department of Health requirements and restricting food trucks immediately adjacent to a sidewalk cafe. We have submitted our own proposals to address concerns at individual locations with the greatest demand for food trucks.
But the so-called “public space management” aspects of Mayor Gray’s proposed regulations are extremely troubling to me. They are more about restricting competition and consumer choice than they are about ensuring public health and food safety. I compete with other businesses every day, whether they are dessert trucks or other dessert wholesalers, and we’re not always on the winning end. But this pushes us to be better and more innovative.
By contrast, relying on a lottery, or a game of chance, to determine if and where you’ll operate is not viable for a food truck or any other type business. If these regulations were proposed to bind any other industry they would be considered absurd. What enterprise could operate in the hopes they could win the golden ticket to do business? The regulations say that we can still vend in the city if we lose the lottery, but we are banned from vending within 500 feet of the lottery-winning food trucks and then only if there is more than 10-feet of unobstructed adjacent sidewalk space. Few sidewalks pass that rule.
Food Trucks are popular for a reason. It’s not our “cool” graphics or our smiling faces. It’s our food, what we serve and the value attached to it. It’s the choice given to our customers, which was lacking before food trucks. We’re entrepreneurs who saw a void in the marketplace and filled it. Isn’t this how a free market operates? Our customers are the ones that put us here and keep us here. Shouldn’t the choice of who stays and goes be up to them?