Washington, DC: Pedro & Vinny’s Burrito Cart Plans Expansion as Food Truck Competition Picks Up

John Rider, owner of Pedro & Vinny’s burrito cart parked at 15th and K Streets NW. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

By Abha Bhattarai  | Washington Post

John Rider, owner of Pedro & Vinny’s burrito cart parked at 15th and K Streets NW. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )
John Rider, owner of Pedro & Vinny’s burrito cart parked at 15th and K Streets NW. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

Nearly every day for the past two years, Mahesh Patil has eaten a burrito from Pedro & Vinny’s.

And nearly every day, he has ordered the same thing: An onion tortilla with rice, black beans, pinto beans, guacamole, salsa and hot sauce.

“It’s my favorite,” the 46-year-old said last week as he picked up his daily burrito. “I will never get tired of it.”

Pedro & Vinny’s, the cart parked on the corner of 15th and K streets NW has for two decades relied on a steady stream of regulars to keep its operation in business.

Now, following shifting District regulations, owner John Rider is preparing to expand, with plans to add at least three more burrito carts.

Pedro & Vinny’s private brand mango habenero "Goose" sauce. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)
Pedro & Vinny’s private brand mango habenero “Goose” sauce. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Rider’s business was bustling long before a new generation of food trucks took to the streets. He says the rise of vehicles doling out Korean tacos and Cuban sandwiches has helped create new opportunities for sidewalk vendors (which operate under a separate set of rules from food trucks). The popularity of food trucks has also given way to a new generation of mobile services: flower trucks, clothing trucks, even massage trucks that are waiting to be licensed by the District.

“The fact that food trucks are so popular has made it easier to get into the truck business,” said Sai Souphom, 34, who started Saivita flower truck in December. “People understand the concept, and your customer reach is obviously wider” than in a brick-and-mortar store.

In October, a new set of regulations began allowing businesses to apply for specific merchandise and service truck licenses. It also allowed authorized licensed vendors to operate up to five carts at a time (as opposed to one), and the rules established a monthly lottery system for trucks wanting to operate in the city’s most coveted spots — such as Farragut Square or Union Station.

The new guidelines have created a series of new opportunities for vendors such as Rider, and have also helped bring some order to the often-contentious relationship between Washington’s food trucks and its established restaurants.

“There were no rules in place,” said Kathy Etemad Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “We were very keen on making sure that the city did in fact establish a framework” for food trucks.

A boom in food trucks

Washington’s food truck revival started in 2009. The Fojol Bros. touted their business as “a traveling culinary carnival.” And it was. Workers in the multicolor “Merlindia” truck donned fake mustaches and turbans as they doled out dishes such as chicken masala and pumpkin curry.

“It was very controversial at first,” said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the DC Food Truck Association. “Food trucks appeared, and folks were like, ‘Wait, what is this?’”

By 2011, there were about 60 food trucks roving the area. Today, there are more than 245 registered in the District alone, according to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

“Food trucks, as they exist today, are a relatively new innovation in the District,” said Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “The regulations are much more explicit now than in the past, when they were geared more toward roving ice cream trucks” than food trucks.

Nearby jurisdictions are also changing their rules. In Arlington, street vendors are now allowed to operate for two hours at a time (as opposed to one). Montgomery County officials are working to clarify closing-time rules that currently require food trucks to stop operations at dusk. And in Alexandria, city council members were set Saturday to consider lifting a ban on food trucks, after this story went to print.

For Pedro & Vinny’s, the food trucks have been a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, Rider says burrito sales have dropped by about 25 percent — from an average of 200 burritos per day to about 150. But on the other, evolving regulations have given him an opportunity to expand.

“After doing this for so many years, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Rider, 56, formerly the executive chef at the Key Bridget Marriott. “It’s the first time the doors have opened for me to expand.”

Rider is preparing to debut three new carts this spring: at Metro Center, the corner of 19th and L Streets NW, and the intersection of North Capitol and E Streets.

Last year, he helped open a brick-and-mortar Pedro & Vinny’s on Columbia Pike, one of a number of mobile vendors that have opened up eateries. Recent estimates show that 21 food trucks have opened restaurants, and about the same number of restaurant-owners have gone mobile, according to Ruddell-Tabisola.

“The food truck industry is proving itself to be a restaurant incubator,” he said, citing eateries such as Kangaroo Boxing Club and Curbside Cafe. “The lines are definitely blurring.”

A burrito bonanza

Rider stumbled into burritos by accident. Before he took over the Pedro & Vinny’s cart in 2002, the 56-year-old had never rolled a tortilla.

He had owned a couple of sidewalk stands — one on the corner of North Capital and E streets, which sold coffee, wraps and fresh-squeezed juice, and a cart at George Washington University, which specialized in pasta and pizzas.