Next stop for food trucks: Silver Spring?

Customers outside the D.C. Cupcakes truck
In downtown D.C., long lines form at a cupcake truck. But not in Silver Spring (yet). (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Augstine Cabrera of Silver Spring sells sausages on a plaza near the intersection of Georgia and Wayne avenues. He’s been in the same spot for about three years and is one of the only street vendors in the area.

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Gourmet food trucks would be wise to turn their sights to Silver Spring.

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Business hasn’t been stellar for Cabrera; many office workers go for the pricier chain restaurants across the street, he says. A customer can get a sausage and a can of soda for $3 at his cart.

But workers in the area may be looking for something a little different than hot dogs. Lamond says he’d love to see ethnic food not currently available in Silver Spring, perhaps a West African truck.

Meanwhile his coworker, Carolyn Day, is just a little wary of eating meals cooked on wheels.

“If there was one here, with a good reputation and I know the food is clean and it’s good quality food,” she would eat there, Day says, adding, “I do like the idea of a more mom-and-pop business.”

Eric Robbins, who blogs at Thayeravenue.com, would love to see carts selling Korean food or poutine in the area, and that Silver Springites, who he says have a “down-to-earth” attitude, would be open to eating food cooked in trucks.

“I think that there is a market. The market might be smaller than other places around the D.C. metro area, but I really think there is a market,” he said.

Chinnia does worry about a situation where new street vendors could cause tempers to flare at existing traditional restaurants, which face higher overhead costs, property taxes and utility fees.

“Long ago you’d find mobile units on construction sites, and now they’re coming to areas where there are restaurants,” he says.

There are about 20 restaurants in Downtown Silver Spring. Susan Hoffmann, marketing and special events manager in the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, says trucks coming to the area would have to address concerns about unfairly competing with restaurants.

Such trucks could visibly block existing restaurants or chip away at their customer bases. It may also be difficult to find a street on which to park that wouldn’t cause traffic concerns.

But Hoffman is optimistic that such trucks could benefit from the long-term vision of enhancing a sense of community in the downtown area, as long as vendors “play well with others.”

“I follow the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats, so when it’s good for one, it’s good for all,” Hoffman says. “And the whole concept of creating the redevelopment and the retail area of Downtown Silver Spring was the concept of critical mass, meaning the more you got in the types of business and the kinds you had, the better.”

The differences in permitting, inspection and licensing fees for food trucks between Maryland and Virginia don’t differ dramatically; it could cost $630 in Arlington County or $420 in Montgomery County, depending on the type of unit.

The biggest costs associated with a food truck business is the truck itself; it can cost as much as $60,000 to $70,000 to outfit with the proper storage, cleaning and cooking necessities.

Interest in street vending continues to grow in the District, where the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs put out a survey this summer soliciting public feedback on the types of food they’d like to see sold in the city. Nearly 2,000 people responded, according to DCRA spokesperson Michael Rupert.

DCRA conducted a similar survey in 2006 in which nearly 500 people responded, 82 percent of whom said they would spend more money on street food if the options were more diverse.

“The public wants them,” Rupert says. “They want to be more like other cities. If you go to other cities, the street food culture is what keeps people on the sidewalks and gets people out and creates a bustling economy on the sidewalks.”

Trucks, which are supposed to move from location to location throughout the day, can obtain licenses in D.C., but not stationary street vendors. A 2-year-old freeze on street vendor licenses has caused some to turn to more expensive trucks or to sell outside of the District’s borders, such as District Taco. Owner Osiris Hoil said he had already named his business after discovering it’d be impossible to operate in the city. He now sells from locations in Rosslyn and Crystal City.

“We don’t set up in residential sites or construction sites. We set up right by where there’s a lot of network businesses, a lot of people checking their Twitter accounts or Facebook, because that’s how they know us and what we’re going to serve,” he says.

Hoil, like other vendors, says success also comes from offering fare not served in chain restaurants nearby.

Hoil’s goal is to break into the District, and it could come soon. The street vendor freeze could soon be lifted, if DCRA has its way; the department recently put forth a litany of recommendations to the D.C. Council on how to reform street vending laws. They include allowing one vendor to own up to three carts and hire employees to man them, as well as letting vendors change the look and size of their carts. Rupert hopes they will come up for council consideration this fall.
 

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