PoP-Ed: Why My Brick-and-Mortar Bakery Opened a Food Truck by Craig Barsi


The following PoP-Ed. was written by Craig Barsi. Craig is Co-Owner of Sweetz Cheesecake and That Cheesecake Truck.

PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

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.

 Continues after the jump.

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?

46 Comment

  • justinbc

    I’m really not much of a fan of cheesecakes, but I actually enjoyed what this truck offered and the staff was really nice. It’s great to hear the stories behind some of these trucks, as it stands an interesting contrast to the plethora of generic “halal and kabob” meat trucks that jumped on board once they found out they could make a profit on the trend with very little startup costs.

    While I also oppose the lottery system for assigning spaces / licenses, I’m not exactly convinced it’s “customer demand” that’s putting most trucks in place in the popular areas now. It’s more a matter of who gets there first or who has someone to hold a parking space for them. I’m pretty sure the customer base at Farragut Park isn’t demanding 6 halal or chicken & rice trucks, but I could be wrong.

    Until the food truck consortium creates a lobby with the funds like the various business districts (Golden Triangle, for example) they will forever be opposed by those businesses with money to spend.

    Ultimately it saddens me to see some of America’s entrepreneurship stifled in such a way, and I think both sides are a bit unrealistic in what they expect. It would be great if the DC government realized this wasn’t a trend that was going to just go away any time soon and actually formed a committee to properly assess the merits of both arguments and properly regulated it, rather than just lumping it under everything else that DCRA enforces.

  • “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”.

    Correction…hundreds of “non District resident” jobs.

    As a District tax paying resident, I really wonder why I should care that non-District based businesses (like this Cheesecake one), who don’t employ any District residents, don’t pay an District income tax, are going to have a hard time selling their wares to a crowd of daily 9-5’ers that are primarily not District residents.

    Food trucks had it really good the first few years they were in DC. Barely no regulations, didn’t have to pay any DC sales tax, trash the streets where they park, that then a District based business has to clean up via their BID taxes, then they take all their profits to their homestates to be taxed there.

    Yeah, food trucks had it good. No more…

    • That’s a good point. I hadn’t considered that. While there are probably DC based foodtrucks that do employ DC residents and pay DC taxes, is there a way to get them to pay their share of BID taxes that their brick-and-mortar competitors do?

    • justinbc

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say that many of the employees that work at the Subways and Cosis and the like that otherwise surround the parks these trucks park by are not District employees either. Although I lack the same means to verify this that you do.

    • +1. And, they feel entitled to clog the sidewalks while contributing nothing to cleaning up the trash that their customers strew everywhere.

    • How do you know that these food trucks aren’t employing District residents? And regarding their customers, I think you’re probably underestimating the number of downtown employees who live in DC.

  • jim_ed

    I have nothing of value to add to this conversation, but I accidentally misread it as “Sheetz” truck, which made me incredibly excited. Then I saw it was actually Sweetz, and I was sad.

  • When I worked downtown (how I miss it!) I was one of your regulars. Your workers (and your food) always brought a smile to my face. I was a regular at quite a few places and I miss the food and their truck owners/staff very much.

    I find what Gray is doing to be absolutely appalling. Please let us know how we can help. And for the record, I have lived in the District and worked there for eight years. I pay considerable taxes.

    • Where do you work now? Wouldn’t you like this food truck to come there? Unfortunately it will take those “appalling” regulations to make it happen.

  • I cannot speak to what food trucks are required to pay in taxes or add to the city financially, but I think focusing on the financial aspect misses a lot of things food trucks do add.

    I grew up in a close DC suburb and have lived in DC since 2007. The transformation of the city has been incredible and has skyrocketed since I moved back here. Food trucks add to the growing food scene and the amazing transformation of the city. It brings people together in the city parks, which were once just used by the homeless. It allows people who have great food minds to open a food truck with considerably less money than a B&M store.

    This city has a lot of problems. But anything that makes DC a place I want to live and work? Thats not one of them.

    • “Food trucks add to the growing food scene downtown and the amazing transformation of downtown. It brings people together in the downtown parks, which were once just used by the homeless.”

      fixed it for you

  • “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.”

    The last two food truck lunches I had (a gyro and a chicken teriyaki bowl) were pretty lousy. I’m glad I only buy my lunch around once a week.

    • justinbc

      That sounds exactly like the kinds of “food trucks” I described that are basically playing on the popularity of the trend and not really doing anything creative to add to the culture.

  • I work at a small office park in SE DC. The closest restaurants are a 15-minute walk away, and those are mostly sit-down places. Everyone I work with either brings their lunch or buys from the (overpriced, cash only, mediocre) deli that’s in one of the buildings. The food trucks would make a killing here because there are thousands of workers and no competition from brick and mortar restaurants, but they’re only interested in the downtown lunch crowd. I think the regulations are a good thing because they would spread out the trucks a little. It’s not like everyone works in the same place.

    • justinbc

      I suggest you go on Twitter and compel a few trucks to come out to your area. They’re always looking for new spots and new markets, especially with the overcrowding the occurs in most of the more popular areas like Farragut / Franklin / L’Enfant.

      • I’m not on Twitter. Can’t they figure it out themselves?

        • How will they know you’re there if you don’t tell them?

          • How do B&M restaurant owners know where to open? It’s called market research.

          • “How do B&M restaurant owners know where to open? It’s called market research.”

            very 20th century of you there.
            maybe thats how corporations still operate, but it is definitely not how small indie businesses go about things.

          • Ok, I guess I gave small indie business owners too much credit. They’re obviously not smart enough to know that an area with a lot of office buildings and no lunch options would be a good place to bring their lunch offerings.

          • Indie business are too good for that stuffy market research. It’s soooo up-hip. Better to crowdsource the shit out of every decision you make.

          • 9:08,
            it’s not about hipness, and if you think that it is you miss the point. generally indie and small business already have a sense for where they want to open and who their market is.

        • justinbc

          When you want a pizza delivered do you call and order it or do you just expect it to show up because you’re hungry?

          • *snort*

          • Hey, it’s no sweat off my back. I’d still continue to bring my lunch either way. I just think it’s silly that food truck owners are whining about having to relocate when there are great opportunities in other parts of the city. I also think it’s crazy that no one’s taken the initiative to find those opportunities themselves, and are relying on the Twittersphere to tell them how to run their businesses.

  • Emmaleigh504

    I haven’t really been following the who food truck saga because I’m not in their target market, but every time I do read something by a food truck owner it always sounds so whiny. I just cannot side with the food trucks when they sound so entitled.

  • You lost me at “When I started to look to expand or possibly move our bakery to the District…steep fees and bureaucracy gave me pause.”

    Sounds like typical greedy business owner rhetoric.

    • saf

      Have you tried to get anything done in this city?

      I love DC, I really do. The fact is, opening a business here is HARD, far harder than it needs to be.

  • Some of these comments are out right absurd. What business doesn’t pay taxes? All businesses pay taxes, rather it be a B&M or a vender or any other business for that matter.

    What sense does it make for any business to open up in the middle of nowhere? Why would an entrepreneur open a business? For many different reasons but the bottom line is to stay open you must make a profit. I own a carwash, would I want to be in a high traffic area or in the mountains waiting for that one car to pass by in hopes they’ll get it washed?

    As for trucks not cleaning up for themselves, think about Cosi, Subway, Starbucks and all the like. Where do you think their trash goes? Does it magically disappear?

    One of the few, who actually has any sense in this comment section is Justin! You are ignorant to think a healthy portion of employed DC workers are from DC.

    In conclusion, if ignorance is bliss then stick with. Nearly a third of these comments are uneducated assumptions.

    • “As for trucks not cleaning up for themselves, think about Cosi, Subway, Starbucks and all the like. Where do you think their trash goes? Does it magically disappear?” If these businesses are in a BID (which is where the food trucks want to be), they contribute funds to clean up the BID. That’s where the trash goes. But, as you say, ignorance is bliss, so be happy.

      • Below is the comment I was referring to. If the comment wasn’t legible, would you like me to elaborate?

        – DC sales tax, trash the streets where they park –

        Who’s to say and I’m positive it’s not you, that BID taxes aren’t payed? Just like they don’t pay sales taxes right? Here we are again with another assumption….

        • I know that they don’t pay BID taxes. This has been well publicized. As someone so quick to accuse others of ignorance, you might want to do your own research.

        • So foodtrucks, despite their nearly 3 years of high pitched squealing about not wanting to, now (as of last November) pay a standard DC sales tax.

          And I am “to say” that they don’t contribute to any BIDS, because it hasn’t been made into law yet. If you find any food truck that is paying standard BID taxes, I will give you house.

          Many folks got it right above. Food truckers just sound like a bunch of whiney entitled kids. Perhaps if they didn’t take any and all opportunity to cry the sky is falling, we wouldn’t think so.

          And you are right, food trucks want to go where they will make the most money, but then they also have to stop pretending like they are doing us all a favor by providing the District a “much needed” service, which has been in only about 50 of their press releases.

          If you wanted to do the District a favor, you would be going to the food deserts to serve the folks without options, like the guy above at the Navy yard. Instead 60 of you a day want to congregate in 2 places. That isn’t doing anyone a favor but yourself.

          • PDleftMtP

            I love me some food trucks, but I agree with this.

          • I enjoy food trucks. I think they are a needed service. Who has time to sit down and eat in an overly priced restaurant? This economy is tough and I see people everyday go the extra mile for their job(i.e. getting lunch from a food truck coming back in and eating at their desk and keep working) People want to have a leg up on their position. So, in this instance, it is a service provide.

            I also support food trucks because my grandfather was a cart vender. I know very well how taxes were paid vending wise. It was a flat rate. Why a flat rate? There wasn’t anyway for the government to know the cash flow. It was their solution. From what I remember, I never read nor heard them complain about paying taxes. If anything, I was informed sales taxes were being added to the price.

            If it made sense to you, that food trucks want to go and make money in places that provide that opportunity, which agrees with my analogy, why would you then state they should go to desert locations? What sense does this make? If Navy Yard has no foot traffic but a few. Who would they sell to 10, 20, 30 people?

            I love the cheesecake truck. This is why I read the article. If your an avid follower, which I’m sure your not, you would know they donate 10% to various charities. What restaurant does that? They have given me deals as a patron. What restaurant does that?

          • Navy Yard has a ton of foot traffic. I guess you’ve never been there on a weekday.

          • “Who has time to sit down and eat in an overly priced restaurant?”

            Does no one bring their lunch anymore? You’re not saving much time by walking 15 minutes each way and then standing in line for another 10 minutes to get food. If the economy truly were a concern people wouldn’t be buying expensive lunches.

    • Who said they should be opening in the middle of nowhere? I went back and read all the comments and I don’t see that argument anywhere. Unless you’re one of those people that thinks anything outside of NW DC is hicksville.

  • Cheesecake truck has the best cheesecake ever! I’m glad they got a food truck! If they didnt I would have never know about them! ! Awesome cheesecake and great customer service what more can you ask for?

    • Best for REAL! Another reason I visit the truck is the guy who runs it! Girl that boy is FINE! Woot Woot!!

  • i wish you who supporter of trucks feel the pain of those restaurant are suffering now.they pay $60.00 to $120.00 plus $20-$30 triple net.plus property tax you can guess dc down town value. $20000.00 to 30000 a month rent only.you have make $1000.00 for rent now 50 trucks park around you no rent no tax no insurance no workman no utilities,on top of no regulation God knows where they cook(in their apartment kitchen.make playing field fair tell city don’t charge sales tax,don’t charge franchise fee end of year what ever your profit 15% .that’s why lots of owner had their own truck and selling their business right now city has 600 trucks soon will be 1600.at east put health inspector on them regularly and post their inspection on internet like they do for restaurants

    • – Food trucks pay taxes
      – Have health inspections 10X more than restaurants
      Rule of thumb never look in your favorite restaurant’s kitchen. You’ll be. sick to your stomach at what you’ll see.
      – Pay rent on a commisary kitchen.
      – You have to have a commisary kitchen to even get a licens

      Franchise comment is weak. Start your own brand maybe you won’t have to pay 15% .

      Restaurants need to make better food. You throw together subpar food give it a fancy name and charge a lot for it. That’s not going to work anymore.

      Oh and there are a 170 trucks in the city and how many restaurants?

      • justinbc

        Thank you, well informed poster (and for navigating a post I dare not try to decipher).

        A lot of misinformation is shilled out about food trucks. There are some that are just awful, and those typically go out of business just like restaurants do. Then there are some that do really great, flavorful items that you won’t get from any restaurant in that price point. The pan con lechon sandwich from El Floridano, for example, is one of the best lunch items I’ve ever had in DC, and only costs $7. If Subway were making food of that quality I would have no problem going there to get it.

        There was a time when I had been to probably 90% of the city’s food trucks and reviewed virtually all of those I had gone to, with about half being quality and half being moochers of the trend. That second half has now exploded since people have realized the profit that can be made with little investment, and I think it’s definitely saturating the market. I really wish the food truck bubble would burst, so that those who are really pushing the edge can excel, but I don’t see it happening as long as they’re all keeping their average prices under $8-10…restaurants really cannot compete with that (some exceptions do exist, like newly opened GBD for example, where you can get a whole box lunch for $10).

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