Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Food Trucks and Free Markets

I am admittedly a johnny-come-lately to things hip and cool.  I have never friended anyone on Facebook...ever.  So it should come as no surprise I’m well behind the eight-ball with regard to the new food truck craze in DC.  Apparently, beyond serving often delicious food, the trucks have set off a war in the city between brick and mortar restaurants and the trucks.  The brick and mortar places decry the mobility of the trucks, how they steal business for traditional restaurants, leach off the work of business improvement districts, and do that while avoiding sales tax.  The sales tax thing is actually coming under review by the DC city council, and apparently brick and mortar restaurants have a strong lobby so you might be able remove that complaint soon.

The complaint that rings hollow for me is the one where brick and mortar joints are losing business.  It seems like the brick and mortar restaurants don’t want competition, and hey, what business does, but if you’re losing business to food trucks maybe you need to reconsider your sandwiches.  In my non-DCExile life, I’m a pretty serious foodie with the refined palate one would expect from a kid who grew up in the Midwest and thought pork chops could only be safely served if encrusted in Lawry’s seasoning salt.  That said, I still enjoy good food.  I know what my options are around my office, and while limited they are relatively diverse.  I’ve got sandwiches, Thai, Chinese, burritos, pizza, burgers, all in the mix.  However, having worked in the same neighborhood for five years, that diversity has become pretty unexciting.  So when my coworker tells me the Red Hook Lobster Pound is sitting outside my building selling lobster rolls (at a not-cheap-for-lunch $15) I jump out of my chair and run to the truck.  That was money well spent, but the next day the truck is gone.  It hasn’t been back since.  And that’s the point of the food truck.  It competes for a day and then it’s gone.  The landed eateries in the area get my business most days, and yet there are complaints about losing business.

I’ll tell those eateries why they’re losing business.  I know what they have.  I’ve had their sandwiches many times before, but sometimes you just want a lobster roll and when that purveyor is outside you go pay him or her for deliciousness.  I don’t see my local landed eateries pushing the boundaries of their menus to provide a similarly intriguing option.  And then there’s the food truck that fails to deliver.

Just last week the Meathead truck was nearby so I checked it out.  The sandwich wasn’t very good.  It definitely wasn’t worth what I paid for it, and I don’t plan to go back anytime soon.  I would rather go to one of my landed eateries then go back to the Meathead truck.  Capitalism wow!  And that’s why I don’t care food trucks are stealing business from landed eateries.  Give the customers what they want or perish, such is the nature of business.

Originally, I started to research this to figure out why only the crappiest of food purveyors line the National Mall.  All of whom seem to have the same sign maker.  Was there a regulation against them?  I didn’t find one, but the article I link to above points to oligarchic collusion facilitated by city regulations on food trucks.  If you are a food truck, you have to be tethered to a depot for storage and stocking up.  Apparently there are only a few such depots in DC, and the owners have been known to strongly suggest that food trucks buy the food the depots sell or else face rising rents or an eviction that invalidates the food trucks license.   That’s the only hint of a reason food trucks aren’t all over the National Mall.  Get on it food trucks.

Feel like this post got away from me so, let’s review.  A battle is a-raging between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants for your hard-earned lunch dollars.  The restaurants are complaining that business is being stolen away without trying to make what they make better.  Red Hook Lobster Pound = awesome.  Meathead = not awesome.  Food truck depots are exploiting city regulations to compel tourists to eat crappy hots dogs when they’re checking out the Washington Monument.  Who’s hungry?  To find the food trucks near you go here.

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