DC food trucks have grown in number and quality over the last several years, and are now a lunchtime staple in the District’s business corridors. But new regulations would directly undermine food trucks, giving DC workers fewer options and lower-quality food.
Food trucks have been in a state of legal limbo since they first started selling lunches in 2009. Current regulations were meant for other mobile businesses, such as hot dog stands and ice cream trucks. They are not designed for modern food truck practices.
While food trucks register with the District, are inspected for safety and cleanliness, and pay the same 10% tax on sales that restaurants do, many other issues have yet to be settled. For example, food trucks regularly receive expensive parking tickets because they often need to stay at a given location for more than 2 hours.
The currently-proposed regulations are their fourth revision. Rather than focusing public safety, they micromanage when and where individual food trucks can operate. But food trucks have been successful in large part because they quickly respond to consumer needs by changing menus and locations.
Most of downtown would be permanently off-limits under the new regulations, aside from a handful allowed to operate in designated “mobile roadway vending locations.”
Locations where food trucks would be allowed or prohibited downtown.
Image from the DC Food Truck Association.
The regulations themselves do not create a single MRV location. Instead, they allow DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to propose locations and the number of food trucks that can operate in each one, subject to review by the District Department of Transportation.
The regulations also allow the director of either agency, on his or her own, “the discretion to propose, modify, or remove a designated MRV location at any time.” This does not protect consumers from any actual harm. Given how popular food trucks are, it’s not clear which, if any, public interest is being addressed by the regulations.
Helder Gil, DCRA’s legislative affairs specialist, has stated that the regulations are an attempt to “find something that works for everyone.” This is a misguided goal. Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.
In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.
It’s also clear that restaurants and food trucks can coexist. While food trucks have the advantages of mobility, low overhead, and convenience, restaurants have the advantages of seating, climate control, and larger kitchens. When restaurants and food trucks compete for customers by playing to their strengths, consumers win. When businesses thrive by regulating competitors out existence, consumers lose.
DCRA should completely scrap the latest proposed regulations. Instead, simpler regulations should bring food trucks into a legal status without giving local officials power to stifle competition. DCRA should issue a mobile vending license for any truck that meets the already-existing standards for cleanliness and safety.
These licenses should permit trucks to park in any available spot in a commercial zone, allowing them to operate near their customers. The cost of the license, in the range of a few hundred dollars per month, would bring in more revenue than trucks currently pay by feeding parking meters.
By keeping food truck regulations simple and rule-based, we can ensure that restaurants and food trucks compete on an even playing field. By removing discretion from the regulations, we can ensure that consumers, not competitors or officials, are in control.
If you would like to share your input on the proposed food truck regulations, send your thoughts to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov by 5 pm on Monday, April 8th.