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Food Fight Between Food Trucks & Restaurants Over D.C. Regulation

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Food trucks, including Kristi Whitfield's Curbside Cupcakes, gather near the L'Enfant Metro Station around lunch time.
David Schultz
Food trucks, including Kristi Whitfield's Curbside Cupcakes, gather near the L'Enfant Metro Station around lunch time.

It's around noon, and Robert Clark, of Curbside Cupcake, is looking out onto the street from his perch in his big pink truck. He has a laptop open with both Twitter and Facebook running, and he’s waiting for someone to come by and order one of his cupcakes.

The truck is parked near the L’Enfant Metro station in an area with lots of foot traffic - a good mixture of tourists and federal workers. Given the nice weather, and the aromas wafting in the air, this truck is rarely without a customer.

This scene is a daily lunchtime ritual in downtown D.C., so it's easy to forget when the only foods you could buy on the street were hot dogs and pretzels. You know… in the old days, back in 2008.

Curbside Cupcakes founder Kristi Whitfield started the truck about a year and half ago with her husband. She says he came home from work one day and suggested the idea.

"And so we really just started talking about it," says Whitfield. "How it would work, what would it need to be, and how would we do it. And then we realized we had been talking about it a lot like it was something exciting."

Thanks to the seemingly perpetual trendiness of the cupcake, and the trendiness of food trucks themselves, Whitfield's business was nearly an overnight success. She has three trucks now, and a slow day for one of them is selling just 200 cupcakes. On a busier day, she says they’ll sell around 800.

And at $2.50 to $3 each, Curbside Cupcakes is generating some pretty healthy revenues. So are lots of other local food trucks, and that's garnered the attention of the folks at city hall.

About a year ago, the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs proposed a sweeping new set of regulations for the nascent food truck industry. Their 64-page proposal contained rules on what these trucks could sell, how they could sell it, and where they could sell it.

Food truck operators thought these new rules went way too far. But another local culinary group, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, thought they didn’t go far enough.

“If you have a restaurant located on a street and a popular food truck pulls up in front of you, people see the crowd, they don’t want to come to the restaurant,” says Andrew Kline, head of legislative affairs for the Restaurant Association.

Kline says the District's current rules are stacked in favor of the food trucks.

"Our restaurants, and this is just an example, if they want to open a sidewalk café, there are 18 different agencies - WASA, the police department, Pepco - that the application must be reviewed by," he says. "When a food truck pulls up to a location, there is absolutely no review whatsoever."

Kline wants to see the District change that. And he says, contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with tamping down competition.

"That's not our issue at all. Our issue is management of the public space, is let food trucks compete but let them do so on a level playing field."

The Restaurant Association carries a lot of weight in D.C. According to campaign finance records, it's donated money to 10 of the 13 current City Council members, and to the Mayor.

Yet, in the year since the District proposed the new food truck regulations, nothing has happened. A Consumer and Regulatory Affairs spokesman says that’s partly due to the 2,500 public comments it received, more than for any proposed regulation the city has ever put forth - by a factor of ten.

Whitfield laments the conflict she and her fellow food truckers are in with their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. She says restaurants with good food -- and good logistics -- have nothing to fear

"If you are running an innovative business model than you are not worried about food trucks taking your business away from you," she says. "And if you're not, you're looking for regulations to protect you from competition in a way that is wholly inappropriate."

It's something Whitfield didn’t bargain for when she and her husband hopped into their truck - the politics of the cupcake.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs says it will release a new food truck proposal in a few months.

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