If You Want to Outsell Food Trucks, Make Better Food


Or, if you’re a DC restaurant, you bitch and moan about food trucks until the government steps in to fight your capitalist battles for you. After years of legislative uncertainty, new regulations for food trucks would effectively shut all but a handful out of DC’s busiest downtown areas. Trucks would be forced to compete for a handful of “lottery” parking spots. No other trucks would be allowed within a 500-foot radius of the allotted spots. The result is that most trucks would be forced to lower-traffic areas, and would probably go out of business. Why would DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs even consider legislation that would hurt small business owners and cost the city thousands in tax revenue? Is it a food safety issue? A public health concern? Nope. The city’s restaurants are just PMSing. Via Greater Greater Washington:

Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.

In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.

I get it. If you’re a restaurant, you aren’t thrilled about competition being able to park in front of your door. But what I want to know is which restaurants feel that they’re in competition with food trucks. If you are a regular, full service restaurant, complete with a full front of house and kitchen staff, you do not compete with food trucks. No one says “I was going to take my client to this nice restaurant, but let’s do a food truck instead.” So, not them. It’s also not the Subways, Chipotles, or McDonalds of the area. If you’ve ever been in downtown DC around lunch time, you know the chains aren’t hurting for business. Then who is it? who’s left that does most of their business during lunch, but offers neither a full-service environment nor the consistency of a chain? Ah, that’s right. Weigh ‘n pays.

If you’re not familiar with a weigh ‘n pay, it’s a combination of a buffet and sandwich counter that usually executes neither concept very well. The colloquial name comes from the fact that when purchasing food from the buffet, the price is determined by the weight. You weigh, then you pay. And oh, what a buffet it usually is. Imagine a spread of American and Chinese favorites, all either glopped in sauce or fried beyond the point of recognition. A weigh ‘n pay is no one’s first choice, reserved for when you’re super hungover or in search of a meal that matches the depths of your own personal failures. It should come as a surprise that tiny, mobile trucks are able to out-perform a brick and mortar establishment with a full kitchen and pantry, but for anyone who’s eaten at a weigh ‘n pay, it doesn’t.

The chief complaint among “restaurant owners” is that they pay property taxes to the community, while food trucks do not. Besides being an incorrect argument (food trucks pour plenty of money into the community through other things like parking tickets and sales taxes), it’s a pointless one. Brick and mortar establishments pay property taxes because they, in fact, have property. They offer space where their customers can dine, safe from the elements. They have full kitchens that (in theory) allow them to prepare a greater variety of food. They have refrigerators and freezers that should allow them to save money by buying in greater quantities. All of these things (storing, preparing, and serving food in the same place) should create economies of scale that allow them to offer food at market prices but for a higher margin. Apparently none of that is happening, because they’re getting beat out by a bunch of guys cooking food in the back of a truck.

Food truck operators have to store and prep food in one place, and then finish and serve in another, from a truck. Space does not allow for a support staff. Rules don’t allow them much time to settle in early in order to finish prepping. If an appliance in a restaurant breaks down, it’s an inconvenience to overcome. If anything breaks down on a food truck, they don’t make money that day. Still, food trucks consistently churn out better food than the average weigh ‘n pay, because the proprietors care. Weigh ‘n pays could probably obliterate food trucks by using cheaper, fresher ingredients and preparing them thoughtfully, but that would require planning, and work. Instead, rather than let the market decide who succeeds and who fails, DC restaurants would rather have the government create artificial barriers to entry.

If you want people to choose your food over a competitor’s, start making better food than them. If all else fails, the food trucks can always come to Arlington.


  1. chefvick

    This is by far the best post I’ve read about food trucks vs restaurants. As a member of the DMVFTA that also has a restaurant background, this is spot on. Thanks for the awesome write up, trucks will surely be tweeting about it!

  2. Marie who works downtown

    This is a pretty good arguement. We know Jose Andres who runs what, a zillion downtown restaurants AND a food truck is a restuaranteur who doesn’t have a problem with food trucks. Hell even Chick Fil A, a chain has a food truck, so they don’t have a problem with the trucks. So it must be those places that don’t even show up on my radar, as you say the weigh and pay.
    I sent a letter supporting the food trucks to the DC government (using a stamp and the Postal system) saying that I want the choices that having lots of trucks in one space gives me lots of choices.

  3. Section222

    Excellent point. I think the Cosi/PotBelly/CornerBakery/AuBonPain’s of the world probably are hurt by competitions from the food trucks because they play in the same general price range. They could compete on quality and price, but they don’t want to.

  4. Nila

    Thanks for your marvelous posting! I genuinely enjoyed reading it, you may
    be a great author.I will remember to bookmark your blog and will often come back
    down the road. I want to encourage you continue your great posts, have a nice holiday weekend!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s