DC Food Cart Deregulation

Friday night I was standing outside a bar enjoying a slice of pizza from the DC Slices truck and noting that before the Fenty administration there were almost no good food trucks in DC, whereas now there are many. But, asked friends, can we really credit Fenty for this? Well, it’s not clear to me how much credit he deserves personally, but we can definitely credit a changing policy environment.

Here’s Tim Carman’s October 2008 article just as DC food cart perestroika was beginning:

Vendors still must store their carts in a depot overnight and conform to all the fussy sidewalk regulations. And they still have to design their carts to be no more than seven feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide. “You can only do hot dogs with that [size] unless you’re very innovative,” says Gabe Klein, co-founder of On the Fly.

The depot requirement, however, may be the biggest reason our streets have become Wiener Central. There are three main depots in the District where vendors can park their carts, each licensed by the Department of Health. On the surface, the depots are there to provide cart operators with a clean storage space as well as security, trash removal and hot water. But depots are much more than that; they’re actually multimillion-dollar-a-year businesses in which owners not only rent spaces but also sell vendors chips, sodas, hot dogs and the rest of the fare that has become commonplace on the streets.

Later you learn about “under-the-table deals in which they must buy ice, propane tanks, towing services and food or face higher rents or even the threat of eviction.” But Sam Williams at the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs kept pushing for changes and improvements in the regulatory environment, and food cart entrepreneur Gabe Klein was tapped to head up the DC Department of Transportation.

Elections are unlikely to turn on things like streamlining food cart regulations or cleaning up depot kickback schemes, but this sort of thing matters to people’s everyday lives and it’s a reason it’s important for everyone to try to understand what’s happening in their community and get in touch with elected officials about it. There’s continuing political controversy in DC about whether or not the city government should try to accommodate food trucks, and I’m sure there are similar issues in cities across the country.