D.C.'s Food Truck Underworld

Despite their popularity, food trucks at the National Mall are paying a hefty price to operate.


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Every year, over 25 million tourists flock to the iconic National Mall in Washington, D.C. Yet as they explore some of the nation's greatest museums and monuments, visitors often find themselves faced with limited dining options, which boil down to either pricey cafes at the Smithsonian museums or food trucks parked along the Mall.

The food trucks have, unsurprisingly, become a favorite among tourists. "The diversity is incredible. The food is so well cooked. You could see they really poured their hearts into it. The prices are extraordinary. You can't beat it," Jason, a visitor from Massachusetts who bought a gyro from a food truck nearby, tells Reason

Yet to serve the hungry tourists at the Mall, D.C.'s food trucks have to pay a hefty price, since their operation is technically illegal. To serve their customers and make a living, food truck operators often have to park in illegal spots along the Mall, or stay parked in legal spots after their meters have expired. They are often fined up to $300 a day by the D.C. parking police.

Food truck operators also face fierce competition for coveted parking spots. Vendors like Maged Naeem, who runs Chicken Friendly just outside the National Museum of American History, resort to parking dummy cars overnight to keep their prized spots, ultimately leading to more parking tickets. 

Meanwhile, the fines rack up. In 2022 alone, the city collected $467,000 in parking tickets along the Mall.

This wasn't a problem until the COVID-19 pandemic. Before lockdown restrictions and work-from-home policies, the food truck business was booming in other parts of the district, particularly with the lunch crowd.

"That wasn't only just good for the food truck owners, although it was great for them. It was good for the city as a whole. Right? Get more options for customers, tastier options, more awareness of different cultures and their cuisines, better choices for tourists. It was wonderful for everyone," explained attorney Justin Pearson, who directs the National Street Vending Initiative at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm. 

The pandemic destroyed much of the food truck scene in the district. While trucks can still legally operate in other areas of D.C., foot traffic has dropped significantly, driving many food truck owners to close shop, Pearson added.

"The pandemic obviously closed all of the office buildings. That lunchtime business went away overnight virtually," Doug Povich, owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound food truck, which went out of business in 2020, tells Reason. "Trucks then had to find other places to vend."

Now, the only spot in D.C. that continues to have reliable lunchtime foot traffic is the National Mall. The challenge for the food trucks, however, arises from the division of authority in the area: The roads where the food trucks park fall under the jurisdiction of the district, while the sidewalks where the transactions take place are overseen by the National Park Service. The D.C. government therefore lacks jurisdiction to create legal parking spots for the trucks along the sidewalk.

Neither the National Parks Service nor the district is willing to assume enforcement responsibilities, meaning the trucks technically remain illegally parked. 

"There's inter-bureaucracy apathy, I guess. Nobody wants to be in charge of actually taking care of the trucks down there," Patrick Rathbone, owner of the Big Cheese Truck, tells Reason.

Until the district and the National Parks Service come to an agreement on operating permits, food truck operators will remain stuck in the middle, continuing to pay large fines as they serve the hungry lunch crowds at D.C.'s National Mall.

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