Gone are the funky days of the DC gourmet food truck scene, when a downtown park was transformed into a gourmet food market offering lobster rolls, borscht, truffle oil and cheese, and hazelnut futa.
Struggling DC food truck owners eat thousands in fines
“This is the only place he works,” said 25-year-old Mahmoud Avni. he found a way to keep his fledgling food truck business going after the pandemic. “But it’s not easy.”
This is not entirely legal, as this event created special parking zones for food trucks in the city center when the fire occurred, but the only reliable customers left were school tour groups in brightly colored shirts and convoys of tour bus drivers who were surprised by our diagonal streets in tourist areas.
So after years of working in restaurants and saving money to fulfill his food truck dream, Avni does what he has to do to get prime real estate: collect tickets (about $20,000 a year) and secure a spot close to tourists.
It’s the same for all of them. Every few days, you’ll see a whole line of colorful trucks—the ice cream and boba fleet, the Philly cheesesteak guys, the gyros, the taco truck—all immobilized on wheels with scary orange boots.
For Taha Mamdouh — known in the food truck as Papa Adam — that means driving up from Loudoun County at 6 a.m. to swap the truck he left behind for the night to save the primo space outside the museum.
He grew up working in restaurants in Egypt and then in the US. When he became a father of three, the food truck freed him from restaurant hours and gave him more freedom to be with his family. But that would cost him about $1,500 a month in parking fees.
As of Sunday, D.C. records show he owes $1,200 for 23 tickets he racked up in the past two months.
This is how the government collects its money when the owners of the trucks occupying the vacant lots can’t pay: it impounds them. They were also involved.
I ran the license plates of several trucks parked a block from the Capitol.
One bobamobile had 30 quotes coming in at $2,660.
The fried chicken guy owed $970.
An ice cream and smoothie van owed $1,675.
They pay that on top of their food truck license, which costs about $2,000 a year, as well as health department and vehicle fees.
(I reached out to the city for comment on any change plans, but didn’t hear back.)
Meanwhile, Portland, Ore., has a robust food cart scene, saying that “the flexibility of the city’s regulatory framework for small-scale food businesses makes it easier for chefs to test new ideas and respond quickly to unexpected situations like a pandemic. ” according to Eater.
In D.C., “we’re barely making any money,” said Mohammed Ben, who has operated his own Mediterranean food truck for more than a decade.
He tried to go downtown after the pandemic – he died.
Food truck owners wonder if they will survive the pandemic
That’s what Dylan Koff found after paying a $2,000 licensing fee, getting all his paperwork in order, and finding one hungry soul to eat at his beloved, award-winning Smoking Kow barbecue.
Coe made it work. It joined other food trucks rented by lodging houses or festivals. He opened a brick-and-mortar location just in time to ride the wave of the pandemic.
This turn by fire was the way the strongest in the food industry survived the pandemic. City governments need to act as downtown tax revenues dwindle now that more people are working from home. DC is talking about converting some office space into residential units in order to transform and survive.
Brandon Byrd, whose retro milk truck “Gudies” serving frozen custard (recently named one of America’s 40 best frozen treats) is a frequent sight in town, has had his eye on real estate from the start.
But he survived the pandemic collapse with a place he opened in Old Town Alexandria, an old ice house. “It was a labor of love,” he said. “I bought it a year before the pandemic.”
Ben was among the sellers who were unable to expand. So he did what all the other trucks did—he followed the people.
According to the National Park Service, approximately 32 million people visit the Mall each year. Anyone who has spent any time at our favorite monuments and museums knows that the food is in poor condition.
“We were starving and this was one of the available options because the Museum of the American Indian kitchen wanted $16 for 4 shrimp,” wrote Christina, a museum visitor, in a Yelp review of Papa Adam’s. Hot Spot Fried Chicken truck, he bought a cheaper sandwich instead.
Other than the regional but pricey food exhibit at the Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture—relatively recent additions to the region—the other museum kitchens are very expensive and uninspiring. Some reviewer highlights:
“Prices are too high.”
“DEAR AND PRECIOUS”
“The choices here are very limited and very harmful.”
“This place is an absolute scam.”
It’s an area crying out for exciting, affordable and flexible food options. Supporting food trucks is a low-start-up market that allows for more diversity of ownership than a brick-and-mortar business.
Mall access has long been an elusive dream for food trucks, said Doug Povich, a former head of the DC Food Truck Association who died during the pandemic.
But this is DC and so naturally lobbying for entry was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Because DC owns the streets, the National Park Service owns the sidewalks, and concession contracts with $18 chicken finger cafes at museums tie everyone’s hands.
Trucks flourished in the city center, ending the dispute. Business was good. Now, he’s gone. Once D.C.’s master lobsterman, Povich now works as a state attorney after the famous Red Hook Lobster Pound truck closed.
The rest of the sellers say they will do everything they can to keep the business going.
Avni said that they have built their own informal networks.
“Do we know each other? We will contact you when it starts to drag,” he said. “Or we help with vacancies, agree with each other for better seats. We are like a family.”