Montgomery County officials think they can avoid the controversies that have threatened food trucks in other places, even as its food truck community grows into a more organized and more prominent alternative to the corner sandwich shop.
Dan Hoffman, Montgomery’s first ever chief innovation officer, is working on a program that would pinpoint locations where food trucks could be successful without interfering with the business of traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Hoffman said the county hopes to identify and input “food truck-friendly” locations into a data set that would be accessible at the county’s Data Montgomery website, with the hope the info would lead to the creation of apps with which food truck operators could reserve space ahead of time or let customers know where they’ll be on a particular day.
“We want to be proactive. We want to create some consistency and some reliability for food trucks,” Hoffman said. “These are small businesses we want to embrace.”
Just not necessarily in areas already populated with restaurants.
The brick-and-mortar vs. food truck dilemma is an issue nationwide. Restaurant owners say truck operators cut into their business without having to pay the operating costs or taxes a storefront requires. Truck operators point to regulations that require them to prepare and store food in a certified kitchen space. They also argue the trucks are an example of business innovation, often a precursor to opening a brick-and-mortar eatery of their own.
Perhaps nowhere is the issue more pressing than in the District, where on Friday, the D.C. Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs will review a proposal that would restrict food trucks to certain areas of the city and limit the number that could operate in those areas at one time.
“I’m not going to set up shop in front of a seafood restaurant,” said Missy Carr, owner of the Go Fish seafood truck. “We can all do business. I think it’s fantastic that the county is supporting us. Any time you have the county behind you, it’s a good thing.”
Carr recently put together a website dedicated to providing info and daily locations on 12 prominent Montgomery trucks, with some financial support from each truck operator.
Truck owners say operating in downtown Bethesda is not easy. Parking is difficult to find. Foot traffic is not always consistent enough for good business. Then, there are the parking attendants. Multiple truck owners have said parking attendants harass and ticket food trucks for obscure reasons.
Carr said she recently parked on the side of the Air Rights Building downtown, then was told she had to park in a cut-out area for delivery men. The third time she went to the space, Carr said a parking attendant gave her a $60 ticket. She decided to pay the ticket and go back.
Hoffman is hoping to avoid those types of situations. The corporate office parks that house some of the county’s biggest companies are the most obvious solution.
Rock Spring Park, along Rockledge Drive in the sprawling community of office buildings in Bethesda, hosts a farmers market each Thursday starting in May that includes three or four food trucks and other vendors.
Stacee Longenecker, who puts together the event for property manager Piedmont Office Realty Trust, said the trucks add value to the property in the eyes of tenants and potential tenants.
“We’ve really tried to work on branding the park as an ideal place to work in Montgomery County. It’s a win-win situation. It’s kind of what’s different from the other commercial offices,” Longenecker said. “Tenants see what’s happening down in D.C, in terms of all the options there. They are craving diversity. This is giving them that diversity while at the same time trying to be cognizant of the brick-and-mortars.”
Because the trucks are limited to once a week, Longenecker said there really aren’t issues with the few restaurants in the park, some cafeteria-style delis. On Thursdays, workers from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Piedmont’s biggest tenant, and other companies flood the area, setting up picnic blankets near a pond and forming lines that go a dozen people deep.
“It’s really a game-changer,” said Carr, who takes her truck to the Rock Spring Park market. She also has been frequenting the nearby Marriott Hotel headquarters. The property manager there sought out food trucks while the building’s cafeteria undergoes renovations.
“It’s key in the suburbs,” Carr said. “We spend a lot of time cultivating these spots. It’s huge that property managers can send an internal email to their tenants saying that we’re here and we’re OK. You’ll never see a wall of food trucks like in Farragut Square or Lafayette Square. We just don’t have that many people. We’re more spread out. This is the best case scenario here.”
Hoffman expects the county’s food truck initiative should be complete by the end of summer. If D.C. ends up enacting a law that restricts food trucks, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of those operators make their way north.
“We’re not looking to create massive food truck zones where you get a wall of trucks,” Hoffman said. “We’re looking at two- or three-truck nodes. We want to be very detailed about where they can operate.”
Corporate office parks are a solid bet, but Hoffman said the county is considering a mix of places that will yield more than lunch time business. Redeveloping areas with food truck-friendly developers, such as Twinbrook or White Flint, are options.
Hoffman said the county is also considering heavily residential areas, such as the Grosvenor, where the bulk of nearby restaurants require a lengthy walk or a car trip. The county also will reach out to Metro to see if the transit agency would allow food trucks to set up outside of stations.
“We want to identify places where food trucks can operate without running into problems with brick-and-mortar businesses, without running into problems with enforcement,” Hoffman said, “and most important, where they can be successful.”