Washington, DC: D.C. Council Hinting Food Truck Regulations Might Need More Time in the Oven

Photo by ep_jhu

By  Benjamin Freed  | DCist.com

Photo by ep_jhu
Photo by ep_jhu

After seven hours, the big legislative showdown over the District government’s proposed regulations… is finally over. More than 60 witnesses signed up to testify in front of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Business, Regulatory, and Consumer Affairs, but a few hours into the hearing, it was obvious which way the members who showed up are leaning.

Judging from the lines of questioning posed by Vincent Orange (D-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the proposed regulations—in their fourth draft since being first introduced more than a year ago—might be getting worked over yet again. At principal issue was the creation of designated “mobile vending zones” where food trucks would be allowed to operate after entering monthly lotteries. If those zones are put into law, trucks that do not win the lottery spaces could continue their businesses, but at a distance of at least 500 feet from the approved zones.

The Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington, an industry group that brought many of its members to the hearing, has mounted a loud and visible to the designated zones, saying that the number of proposed lottery spots in popular downtown locations like Farragut Square and Chinatown would be too few to accomodate all the city’s food trucks. But in his opening testimony, Nicholas Majett, the head of the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs, said that the 180 parking spots that would be created in the proposed regulations are more than sufficient to fit all the food trucks. (The latest proposed map was first obtained last night by The Washington Post.)

“There is absolutely no plan, desire, hope, or wish by this administration to have food trucks banned from operating in the District of Columbia,” Majett told the crowded Council hearing room. “District consumers enjoy a very robust offering of food trucks and we are very supportive of the hard-working entrepreneurs that run food trucks.”

But it’s that robustness that propelled D.C. to this moment. Though D.C. long had a patchwork of sidewalk vendors selling hot dogs and cheap snacks, more innovative food trucks only took off in 2009, when trucks like Fojol Bros. showed up. Since then, the number of food trucks has exploded—citywide, there are 299 businesses registered as mobile vendors, including more than 100 food trucks—but the regulations under which they operate has remained static.

Officially, food trucks are regulated under the city’s “ice cream rule,” which prohibits mobile vendors from parking unless there is a gaggle of customers ready to line up and make a purchase. It also outlaws trucks from parking on blocks where the sidewalk is narrower than 10 feet.

“We recognize the ice cream rule doesn’t work for food trucks,” Majett said. “That’s why we want to eliminate it.”

Many of the food truck operators who showed up were opposed to both the lottery system and the existing ice cream truck regulations, which are enforced in the form of cascades of parking tickets. Food trucks have received more than $100,000 in parking tickets since the beginning of 2012, Majett said.

But food truck operators have said they welcome regulation applying to their industry, just not the ones being floated right now. Doug Povich, the executive director of the Food Truck Association, repeated his insistence that the designated vending zones in the proposed regulations are too few, particularly around the most popular food truck spots. At the hearing, D.C. officials pointed out that their most recent map includes 19 spots in Farragut Square, 15 around Union Station, and 13 by McPherson Square.

Povich, and many of his members, also insisted repeatedly that the 10-foot sidewalk rule needs to be ditched, despite Majett’s statement that nearly all sidewalks in downtown D.C. are at least that wide.

Still, the food trucks’ opposition was enough to get the councilmembers to state that if they were made to vote right now, the regulations would most likely be rejected, extending yet again a rule-making process that has gone on since March 2012 when the Council authorized DCRA to cook up a new set of regulations. Orange proposed emergency legislation that would allow the Council to edit the proposed regulations instead of just holding an up-or-down vote. Grosso, meanwhile, said that he agrees with “80 or 90 percent” of the proposals, but could not say which way he is leaning.

The councilmembers were apparently unmoved by some of the testimony from the brick-and-mortar restaurant industry. Kathy Hollinger, the head of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, repeated her group’s insistence that the description of the proposed regulations has been grossly “misleading.”

Even more vociferous were restaurant owners like Dave Loeb, owner of Loeb’s New York Deli across I Street NW from Farragut Square. Loeb said that the rampant growth of food trucks was akin to having 20 new lunch-hour competitors roll up overnight. The argument did not seem to take, as the committee members seemed more inclined to send the proposed regulations back for more edits.

The full Council has until June 22 to vote on the regulations, though Orange didn’t give them good odds. “If we were to vote today on these regulations I can tell you they would not pass,” he said early in the afternoon.

The hearing continued for another four hours.