Print Friendly
Food Trucks: Tasty, But Tricky
Food trucks like the Fojol Brothers' can enliven urban spaces, but regulators haven't figured out how to treat them yet.  Photo: jsmjr, Flickr.

Food trucks like the Fojol Brothers' can enliven urban spaces, but regulators haven't figured out how to treat them yet. Photo by jsmjr on Flickr.

Yesterday morning, Prince of Petworth pointed out the opening of DC’s newest food truck, Sauca.  You can track its location here.

Sauca is the latest addition to our local food cart explosion, joining the likes of the Fojol Brothers, SweetFlow and On the Fly.  To foodies’ delight, street food has been popping up all over D.C. and across the nation.  These carts are not your typical National Mall-hot dog-and-pretzel stands, but a new breed of gourmet, tech-savvy food trucks.  Many of them are “mobile” in more ways than one, using Twitter to alert followers of their ever-changing locations, and lengthy Twitter lists keep track of food carts across America.  There’s an entire podcast series, VendrTV, highlighting curbside vendors around the world.  New York City even hosts an annual event dedicated to honoring the city’s best street vendors, the Vendys!

Planners are thrilled at the food cart craze too, as carts can enliven the urban environment and revive dead spaces, such as parking lots.  In times of recession, street food seems even more important, providing affordable eating options to citizens and allowing culinary entrepreneurs to open businesses with lower start-up costs.

However, this trend has developed in spite of the challenges facing mobile food vendors.  Food carts don’t seem to fit into cities’ normal regulatory structures – they’re mobile and can cross jurisdictional lines, but they also need to park, and are often not welcome in public or private spaces. They sell food and need to pass health inspections, but they’re not traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. They offer a service to customers but not necessarily amenities like restrooms.  D.C. is no stranger to these complexities, as discussed in this Washington Post article tracing the history of the food cart scene.

In 2004, D.C. created a downtown demonstration zone where the street vending rules were relaxed.  Soon after, the city lifted its moratorium on new vending licenses, and in 2007, it started granting new licenses.  The problem was that the necessary studies and legislative work with the D.C. Council was not completed as quickly as expected, so the old regulations remained in place.  This meant that vendors outside the demonstration zone had to deal with outdated rules like the following:

  • Carts must be no more than 7 feet long and 4 ½ feet wide, which makes it hard to cook/sell anything too complex
  • Carts must be stored in one of three depots overnight (the Post had some interesting comments on the politics behind these depots)
  • There must be a 10-foot cushion between carts, making outdoor cart clusters or “food courts” difficult
  • There must be a 300-foot buffer between any church and carts

Three years later, street vendors are still in the same boat.  The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has proposed new rules for mobile food vending, but the D.C. Council has yet to approve them.

D.C. is not alone in its predicament.  Mobile food vendors are having a tough time across the country, and local governments seem unable to reach a solution, which would undoubtedly involve the thorny approach of cross-agency cooperation.  As a result, food cart entrepreneurs face issues such as:

  • Being forbidden to park for more than one hour at a time in a certain location unless they can provide restrooms (Tulare County, Calif.)
  • A patchwork of different regulations and permit requirements for food trucks operating in a wider area (Los Angeles)
  • Zoning rules blocking private property from being used for hosting food trucks (Santa Monica, Calif.)

Portland, Ore. seems to be one of the few places where observers have positive things to say about food cart regulations.  “The City has stayed out of the way, mostly,” says one professional who has worked with food trucks.  As long as stationary mobile carts have functional wheels, an axle for towing, and are located in a commercial zone, they are considered vehicles and are not required to conform to the zoning or building code.  The city encourages food carts on private property, and “pods” of carts cluster in parking lots, often never leaving the space and paying a monthly fee of about $500.  Electricity and wastewater disposal issues are primarily addressed on a complaint-driven basis.  Licenses are affordable (around $300), and the health department regulates food carts in the same way that all businesses that prepare and sell food products are regulated.

The most commonly heard complaint is that with their lower overhead and fewer land use and building permitting requirements, carts compete unfairly with conventional restaurants.  The City attempts to mediate these disputes.

Portland continues to be proactive about developing its food cart policy.  Recognizing the importance of food carts to the city goals of workforce development, equitable economic opportunity and livability, the government recently commissioned a study of the effects of food trucks.  Additionally, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has proposed the installation of food carts in the mostly vacant lots next to transit stations.

On the other hand, it seems like other cities have a long way to go in understanding and capitalizing on the benefits of food trucks.  With D.C.’s budding network of innovative street vendors and growing foodie scene, the city should step up and create a model for the rest of the country to follow.  Of late, local policymakers have shown great interest in implementing temporary urbanism and creatively activating underused spaces.  Figuring out the food truck conundrum would fit right into this progressive urban agenda.

Print Friendly
  • Pingback: The Contradictions of Regulating “Pop-Up” Spaces |

  • Pingback: Food Trucks and a DC Lunch | Do It Go()

  • Pingback: Food Trucks in DC (so hot right now) « dc.christina()

  • Pingback: Food trucks, elaborated « west north()

  • Megan, sorry to do this in posts, but can’t find contact information!!!

    First of all, hello! We’re writing to you from La Cocina, in San Francisco, a non-profit organization dedicated to working with low-income entrepreneurs who are launching, growing and formalizing food businesses. We’re writing to you because, over the last three years we’ve embarked on a learning curve as we’ve examined ways to assist our clients in launching formal mobile food businesses in San Francisco amidst the growing national trend of successful mobile food vendors. We found you because it looks like you’re into the same kind of thing. 🙂

    We’re writing to you, specifically, because we’ve noticed that work that you do, and we dearly believe in sharing best practices (not to mention learning from others’ mistakes) is the way to go. Last year we launched San Francisco’s Street Food Festival to great success. Our goal for this festival is not only to bring the best foods in the Bay Area together for one day but also to advocate for policies that encourage the successful growth of low-income entrepreneurs in the formal food sector. We’re hoping you might be interested in that same kind of thing.

    This year, to further that goal, we are hosting our first Street Food Conference, on the back of our festival. The festival, which will take place on August 21st, will be followed by two days of conference sessions, working groups and networking, and we’re hoping that you will be able to join us. Details on the specific panels, as well as the kinds of conversations we’d like to see, can be found at the end of this note.

    As this is an inaugural event, we are hosting the conference as inexpensively as possible. Costs are minimal, and discounts are available at local hotels. We’d very much like to have you here as we believe that a national trend like this deserves a national conversation, and we can’t do that without you. We understand that it’s short notice, but we’d love to be in touch with you whether you come or not. If you have the time to pass this information on, via your social networks, we would be indebted, and we hope to hear from you. We will be recording the sessions as well, and are happy to share them with you if you’re interested. If you do have time, please link to the following on either facebook or twitter:

    National Street Food Conference in San Francisco! Who’s going? Link and tickets are here:

    Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.


    La Cocina


    Sunday, 8/22 – Session #1, 1:45-3:15pm:

    Open-Air Markets, Hawker Stalls and The Art of Making One Great Thing

    Global street food is an unintended celebration of entrepreneurial spirit, the nature of giving and the drive to make one great thing. Across the world, chefs and informal cooks use open-air markets and mobile vending opportunities to bring their culinary creations to the masses. In every place, this means something different, and the ways in which the world sells and eats food can tell you a lot about a place. In this panel, join some of our favorite chefs as they tell you, and show you, the ways food makes it from the chef to the consumer.

    Moderator: Jessica Battilana, Food Editor, 7×7 Magazine

    Panelists: Charles Phan, Chef, The Slanted Door

    Mourad Lahlou, Chef, Aziza

    Iliana de la Vega, El Naranjo (Austin)

    Session Contact: Caleb Zigas ( and Jessica Battilana (

    Sunday, 8/22 – Session #2, 3:30-5:00pm:

    Truck-Food Nation; The Streets of America

    American street food is nothing new, but over the last couple of years there has been an undeniable explosion in the presence, attention and differentiation in the foods that are made and consumed on the streets of America. Some of this is lamentable, as we’ve seen the past get erased, but there is also immense creativity and opportunity in the ingenuity of these vendors. In this panel, John T. Edge will drive us across the country with the insights of some of the leading innovators across the country.

    Moderator: John T. Edge

    Panelists: Kamala Saxton, Marination Mobile (Seattle)

    Doug Quint, Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (New York)

    Veronica Salazar, Chef, El Huarache Loco

    Jon Ward, Kung Fu Tacos

    Session Contact: Caleb Zigas (

    Monday, 8/23 – Session #1, 9:00-10:30am:

    Meet and Eat – The Culture and Face of Street Food

    There is an undeniable connection between the people who create street food and those of us who enjoy consuming it. Perhaps its allure lies in the faces behind the food, and the human connection that results from a street food transaction. In America, and across the world, the people who take to the streets to make food are defining the locale and its culture. In this panel, we will examine the faces behind the food, how they are perceived, and the ways in which our expectations are often contradicted by our experiences. We will discuss the race, culture and gendered issues of street food and how we as consumers, and all of us as cities, approach these identities.

    Moderator: Sanjit Sethi, Assistant Professor, California College of the Arts

    Panelists: Erin Glenn, Los Loncheros – Los Angeles, CA

    Molly O’Neill, Food Writer

    Sean Basinski, Director, The Vendor Project and The Vendy Awards

    Session Contact: Sarah Rich (

    Monday, 8/23 – Session #2, 11:00am-12:30pm:

    A Cart on Every Corner? Urban Public Space, City Policy and the Informal/Formal Business Model

    Our cities are emblems and innovators. Across the country, cities are trying to deal with the history, present and future of street food. In doing so, there have been successes and failures. This panel brings those experiences together to create an understanding of the best practices and realistic outcomes for an urban public planner to create a healthy infrastructure to support a successful street food venue.

    Moderator: Margaret Crawford, Professor, UC Berkeley

    Panelists: Alma C. Flores, Economic Development Planner, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland, Oregon

    Marianne Moroney, Executive Director, Toronto Street Food Vendors Association

    Warren Hansen, Madison, Wisconsin

    Greg Smith, Atlanta Street Food Coalition

    Session Contact: Evan Bloom (

    Monday, 8/23 – Session #3, 1:30-3:00pm:

    Mobile Vendor Economic Policy

    Using the Bay Area as a case study, we will discuss the economic viability of the street food venture and its ability to produce a sustainable individual income. The panel will look at a few existing models, from the illegal food vendor to the ultra-formalized truck. We will explore how specific cities support these individual vendors and how this affects each local economy. The panel will examine urban policy that works and doesn’t work while discussing steps that cities can take to encourage and support mobile food business.

    Moderator: Kate Sofis, SFMade

    Panelists: Larry Bain, Let’s Be Frank – Los Angeles

    TBD from Parks & Rec

    Matt Cohen, SF Cart Project

    Shelley Garza, Rising Sun Entrepreneurs

    Session Contact: Evan Bloom (

    Caleb Zigas
    La Cocina
    (415) 824.2729 x 303

    Caleb Zigas
    La Cocina
    (415) 824.2729 x 303

  • Pingback: More About Nothing « ArtOffical Intelligence()

  • Ethan

    What about pleasant pops?

  • @Curbsidecupcake on G St NE, outside @WorldResources. See @TheCityFix post on food trucks + #sustainable #transport:
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Pingback: Top 21 Time-Saving Cities |

  • Pingback: Modes & Nodes 021110- Traffic Engineers, Inc()

  • Pingback: re:place Magazine()

  • Pingback: Snow and Politics: Loose Lips Daily - City Desk - Washington City Paper()

  • Brightest Young Things did a colorful photo essay on Fojol Bros, my personal favorite in the emerging DC street food scene …