Washington has recently become an unlikely hotbed of culinary innovation, with entrepreneurs flocking to this historically stodgy meat-and-two-veg city for the chance to feed dulce de leche cupcakes and kimchi tacos to the masses. Office drones rejoice at the expanded lunch options, but restaurants are less happy.
So, unsurprisingly, they have turned to the government. In the epic war between upstart little guys and the alliance of big business and government, Capitol Hill isn't the only battleground. Skirmishes break out everywhere, including the shabby-genteel halls of the District Building.
"It's not competition, it's an infestation!" exclaimed Steve Loeb, the owner of Loeb's Deli, at a nine-hour committee hearing earlier this month. The pastrami purveyor was protesting the plague of food trucks parked in the public square near his restaurant. The council's committee on business, consumer and regulatory affairs was considering the fourth set of proposed rules for food trucks in as many years.
Right now, food trucks are creating a commons problem: They are using public resources without paying for what they consume. The natural result is sidewalk congestion, parking wars and more. The District's proposed regulations, however, fail spectacularly to address those issues.
The new rules would limit longer-term parking to special approved vending zones, while insisting that roving vehicles stop only in places with 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk that are also at least 500 feet from a traditional restaurant or official food-truck zone. Spots in the vending zones, to be provisioned by lottery, would cost from $150 to $400 a month.
Or maybe not. It was hard to tell: Much of the hearing was consumed with confused exchanges about what the regulations actually require. And no one—not the vendors, not the regulators, not the industry associations—seemed to be sure about how the 75 pages of new rules would be implemented.
Loeb was just one voice in the bricks-and-mortar establishment chorus, a cluster of old-school restaurants hoping to employ the power of the city government to keep roving cooks off their turf. And perhaps they feel that they are owed a favor. Owning a restaurant in Washington is pretty terrible. During the hearing, the president of the restaurant lobby said she "would not wish the level of regulation we face on anyone."
She wasn't being entirely honest. Restaurant owners are understandably sore about the onerous regulations and high taxes the city imposes. And they are taking out their frustrations on every burrito truck and banh mi buggy in sight.
Of course, this collaboration of big business and big government wouldn't be possible without that crucial third ingredient: big ego. Councilor Vincent B. Orange offered an astonishingly candid take on the government's position. "You do have to give the government some deference," he said. "Right now there are 200 trucks, and I think the government has a right to say the limit is 250. That's it. That's going to be our food-truck industry."
Speaking of which: The food-truck industry has its own trade association, thank you, as well as a novel way of rallying its constituency: by starving them.
Food trucks at Farragut Square, a patch of semi-greenery amid Washington's skyscraper stumps, staged a protest a few days before the hearing, arriving early to occupy their usual spots but refusing to open for business during the peak of the lunch rush. Thus did local diners get a taste of the terrifying dystopia that awaits them if onerous regulations pass. One pub owner, citing payroll, taxes and other costs, lamented during the hearing that he couldn't stage a similar protest.
This, in a nutshell, is the restaurant owner's dilemma. It's not all about regulation, though that's part of it. A traditional restaurant is a great lumbering beast. If customers stop liking what it's dishing up, it can't just turn on a dime. Food trucks can. (Yes, some of them are quite large, but they are still smaller than the local Italian joint.)
For now at least, Washington remains relatively hospitable to the food-truck industry. (The Institute for Justice's excellent Food Truck Freedom project has a good rundown of the national scene.) The good news is the bad news, or maybe vice versa: The regulatory process seems to be stalled, and confusion and dissension reign.
Still, many food-truck owners are just one cracked engine block or arbitrary parking rule away from calling it quits. One of the city's highest-rated vendors, Basil Thyme, may close in the next few weeks. Brian Farrell, who owns the pasta and lasagna trucks, points the floury finger of blame straight at regulators: "The city of D.C. has been nothing but a series of hurdles and difficulties," he told a reporter for CityPaper, the local alternative weekly. "They're just painful to deal with."
That was followed by one of the saddest sentences a foodie could ever read about a successful culinary entrepreneur: Farrell, the paper said, "plans to return to his previous career in IT sales."
This story originally appeared on Bloomberg View on May 27, 2013.