Monday, March 14, 2011

Food Trucks in Silver Spring: Benign Trend or Economic Parasites?

A species heretofore unseen in these parts has recently been introduced to the downtown Silver Spring ecosystem: the so-called 'gourmet' food truck (truckus hipsterus). While superficially these vehicles may appear similar to the type of lunch truck which has operated in the parking lot of our Home Depot for some time (truckus commonus) or those from which you may have bought a pretzel down by the National Mall (truckus touristus), they are in fact another breed of vehicle entirely.

While gourmet food trucks have been an increasingly common sight in D.C. over the past couple years, for whatever reason they have yet to establish a permanent beachhead just over the border here in Silver Spring. Like overpriced cupcakes, the concept of gourmet food trucks was imported from New York to D.C. after being fashionable in the former for a number of years.  Of course, If you had told me ten years ago that it would someday be socially acceptable to wear two-toned 80's sunglasses and a preferred origin of meals would be from self-propelled kitchens, I would have had to request an immediate 5150.


So it was with little fanfare that a cherry red truck operated by the Tops American Food Company spearheaded the food truck invasion of Silver Spring ten days ago. Its limited menu, sure to be popular with local vegans, consists of sausage, hot dogs, chili, or some combination of the three. The truck's ever-shifting location can be tracked via it's Twitter feed.

 
Admittedly, I was as intrigued as anyone by the truck's arrival, perhaps as much by the novelty of food trucks in Silver Spring as the actual food being offered. As I don't presently work in downtown Silver Spring, I haven't gotten the chance to check out the truck in person, though it did make a weekend appearance Saturday at the Silver Spring farmer's market. I'd certainly welcome the arrival of such a vehicle to my no-food-option-having office park, though sadly that scenario would only occur if the driver got horribly lost.

Prior to Tops, Silver Spring's recent mobile kitchen history consisted primarily of the Chez Dikel cart, which has on occasion served their French and Malian-fusion fare from the gas station lot at the corner of Colesville and Georgia. Of course, this clearly being a cart not a truck, it doesn't really count now does it?
Chez Dikel food cart. Photo by Flickr user Eating in Translation
After my initial enthusiasm over the arrival of this new truck wore off, I started to wonder if this arrangement is really fair to more permanent Silver Spring restaurateurs. Simply by virtue of being on wheels, any new food truck spotted in Silver Spring will create a buzz that eclipses that enjoyed by most of the local "brick & mortar" restaurants.

Take Skew Works, for example: prior to opening last week, they were setting up their new restaurant on Wayne Avenue for a few months, no doubt paying significant construction costs along with a premium downtown rent while doing so. They finally open for business and some carpetbagging truck from Gaithersburg just sets up shop between them and the downtown office buildings, potentially siphoning off some of the lunchtime crowd that might otherwise have made it over to the new skewer joint.

In contrast to the significant investment required to establish a proper restaurant, start up costs for a food truck business might run just $25-$30K, while a yearly mobile food service license from the county averages only a dollar per day (though I imagine the expense of feeding parking meters exceeds that).

So I'm a little torn... are food carts in Silver Spring a good thing or no? They have the welcome potential to create a variety of lunch options that might not otherwise exist downtown, while at the same time, they would likely do so to the detriment of businesses who have chosen to make a more permanent home in Silver Spring.



26 comments:

Andrew said...

Not a good thing. Why should a restaurant go through the extensive and expensive process of opening up restaurants in a town where anyone can open up right next to them with virtually no expense. They can also cherry pick the best days, move to other locations during their peak times. Do they even pay taxes?

Bethany said...

There was a great pupusa truck for a few months last year in the lot on Easley. I was incredibly sad when it went away. So delicious!

Anonymous said...

I must say that this is a trend that I simply don't understand. On several occasions, I have gone with coworkers to food trucks in DC, and every time I have been surprised at: (1) how pricey there are -- in many cases more expensive than normal lunch places, and (2) how mediocre or bad the food is. On top of that, I do wonder about issues like cleanliness of the trucks and freshness/proper refrigeration of the food. In short, I'm really not a fan.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. Are food trucks really competing with brick and mortar restaurants?

Actually...let me rephrase. Are they really competing with the brick and mortar restaurants we CARE about?

When Chez Dikel was up and running (will it be again?), the choice to me was not between that and something like Lebanese Taverna or Nando's or Abol or the like. I was more between Chez Dikel and McDonalds or maybe Panera or Qdoba. In other words, the fast food joints I really don't see going anywhere and even if they did would not shed much of a tear.

To me, I like quick and unusual. If the food trucks can offer that, all the better. I don't see them impacting my solicitation of real restaurants one way or the other.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

To be honest, I don't like standing there with an expensive item of food in my hand as the exhaust of a passing truck washes over me.

Josh said...

I saw food trucks are totally welcome. I do work in downtown Silver Spring, and while we certainly have a decent selection of quality food, it's nice to get a little variety from time to time. Food trucks will hopefully provide that.

Also, I find it a bit ridiculous to be opposed to food trucks because they might compete with brick and mortar restaurants. So what if they do? The goal should be to provide the best quality and value to the customer. If a brick and mortar restaurant can't compete, maybe that means the space they're using would be better filled with some other business. Nothing is better for the customers and the local economy than vibrant competition.

Sligo said...

I don't know what the rules are in Montgomery County, but in DC the food trucks have an unfair advantage in that they don't have to collect sales tax like brick & mortar restaurants, though there are efforts underway to change that.

wombat said...

Whoa, this is weird, I am not usually that person on the internet who's arguing for the free market in blog comments, but I have read this same complaint about food trucks in DC and I don't get it. If having a food truck turns out to be such a perfect business model compared to a restaurant, the restaurant owners can all open food trucks. If they don't, just maybe that's because the business where you can, say, go inside and sit down to eat when it's raining, has some advantages as well. Which seems obvious just from the comments here from people who don't care to patronize trucks for various reasons.

So why should they not compete via their different offerings and advantages? Sure, maybe having great food trucks will put some lousy restaurants out of business just because we have more choices, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me that is a problem.

Maybe this seems obvious to me because I grew up in NYC and ate out of street carts all the time. In my experience this is a totally normal type of business for an urban area. Perhaps it's that some are not used to Silver Spring being an urban area?

hugo said...

To me anything that makes street life more vibrant in DTSS and gets people out of their cars walking around is a good thing. There may be some short-term competition with some restaurants, but in the long-term the more people who are out on the street, the better it is for Silver Spring's businesses, including its restaurants. In terms of aesthetics, I'm a fan of anything interesting, inexpensive, and that I can eat while walking, so I like food trucks.

Springvale Roader said...

I'd like to see frozen daiquiri trucks.

Evan Glass said...

A cupcake truck actually lives in South Silver Spring

Sligo said...

Based on their twitter, that cupcake truck was in Silver Spring one time a few months back, but seems primarily focused on DC.

Woodside Woman said...

I find working in downtown DC that the temptation of food trucks often lure me outside, whereupon I decide it's too much of a pain to wait in line and end up going to a nearby eatery. So, I think restaurants probably benefit as much as they lose in having food trucks parked nearby.

Anonymous said...

I should just freaking bring my crock pot and some paper plates on a wagon and call it a "mobile food stand". This is BS. I don't trust these effers.

Jake H. said...

Yes, the community should be truly alarmed at the threat of small businesses competing for customers (aka, parasites invading to drain our lifeblood by selling us things). Quick, enact more regulatory barriers to entry! RENT-SEEKING SQUAD, ASSEMBLE!

Jenna said...

I think the food truck and restaurant business models both have advantages and disadvantages. Food trucks are mobile, true, but have very limited storage space (so if you run out of food you run out, and you have to serve a limited menu), don't have places for customers to sit, and are really at the whim of the weather. Restaurants aren't mobile, but they have way more storage space (so they can serve more people), indoor seating, and generally more kitchen space (which makes it easier to serve more customers, offer a more expansive menu, and make things to order). But I don't think one business has an "unfair" advantage over the other - each one is just a different model. So it frustrates me that some restaurants are trying to fight food trucks so hard - what's wrong with good old-fashioned competition? If restaurants are so worried that food trucks will steal their business, maybe they should offer more lunch specials, launch their own Twitter account to advertise their business, or even start their own food truck (like the Austin Grill just did).

Anonymous said...

Hope you noticed the promo for this article and your blog in the Washington Post Food section today! They used your hip vocabulary too!

Ted said...

Better a food truck than another cupcake store.

Anonymous said...

One of the local bars (Quarry House?) or just DTSS/Peterson should borrow an idea from Chinatown Coffee and have food truck happy hours, giving advance notice that a given truck will be parked there and offering specials to go with it. Synergy!

Anonymous said...

Sligo say yay! the Food Trucks will drive restaurants out of business, giving you plenty of fodder for your hurtful ``SILVER SPRING RETAIL FAIL'' items. Rejoice.

Sligo said...

"Sligo say yay! the Food Trucks will drive restaurants out of business, giving you plenty of fodder for your hurtful ``SILVER SPRING RETAIL FAIL'' items. Rejoice."

Wow, you are really obsessed with that, aren't you?

Monkey said...

Sounds like a great business opportunity. Don't forget about the different dining experiences. Sometimes you want to sit down. Sometimes you want to pay a lot for wine. And sometimes you just want grab and go. So before we grab our sickles and hammers let's remember we come in all different shapes and sizes and like to do and eat different things...

So wants to be a co-founder of the
Monkey Barrel Wagon?

Vagrarian said...

For the important matter: I just got lunch from the Tops Truck. Not spectacular food, but the Italian sausage was yummy and the fries were hot. The service was friendly and good-humored. I can easily see myself going back, maybe not all the time, but it's a nice change. (I'm one of those who, when he hears folks talking about a restaurant's decor, or their business model, or location, or whatever, always raises his hand and says, "Yeah, but how's the food?")

Anonymous said...

I found that Montgomery Co. does not allow the licencing of these trucks if they are not connected to a commercial kitchen. I hope the laws are being enforced with these trucks.

lilkunta said...

@andrew: I think the trucks do have to be licensed . I KNOW FOR SURE the truck workers have to go through MOCO HHS food handling training . They are even ticketed, especially in LP(langley park).

_" (1) how pricey there are -- in many cases more expensive than normal lunch places, and ..."__
@ anon Monday, 3 14 11 11:25:00 PM
That isnt cool. Food trucks have less overhead so the prices shold be cheaper. No wonder there are so many as the profit margin seems high.

I bet fooducks near clubs when they close @ 2/3a make a whole bunch of $.

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