Have Food, Will Travel
Thanks to social media, mobile vendors are selling everything from fish tacos to cupcakes in Montgomery County. They tweet—you eat
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Jon Rossler, aka The Corned Beef King, says owning a food truck is the hardest thing he has ever done—tougher than his nine years in the deli restaurant business.
He gets up at 5 a.m. to slice meat and make potato salad, coleslaw and knishes, loads the truck and prays that he won’t encounter parking problems, bad weather, traffic jams or vehicle trouble en route to Rockville, Bethesda or Olney.
“There’s always something. …It’s hard to make it out there every day,” the gregarious Rossler says. Once he does, though, he enjoys serving up his sandwiches and talking to the customers.
“Everything about it is fun,” he says.
Rossler is among a growing number of mobile food vendors who are bringing conviviality—not to mention some terrific food—to the streets of Montgomery County.
Yet it’s still a fledgling fleet compared to the District, where dozens of the 400 licensed food and ice cream trucks line downtown streets, offering everything from burgers and bulgogi to kimchi and crêpes.
Montgomery County has anywhere from 100 to 110 food trucks, most of them selling ice cream or Hispanic staples, according to Ken Welch, program manager for the county’s Office of Licensure and Regulatory Services.
Vendors cite several reasons why Montgomery County is behind the curve, including inadequate parking, a lower population density, fewer Twitter-savvy followers, and less access to private parking lots. Then there are the regulations, though whether they’re a blessing or a burden depends on whom you ask.
Rachen Malhotra, co-owner of the Indian food truck Rolls on Rolls, got ticketed in Silver Spring for not having the proper licenses and spent a month trying to decipher the rules. He then got licensed in the District, a process he found much easier.
Stacey Riska, owner of Maui Wowi trucks, had the opposite experience: She thought the process was streamlined in Montgomery County, whereas it took her months to get fully licensed in the District because of all the agencies she had to deal with.
In Montgomery County, “mobile food service units” must have a base of operation—a licensed food service facility with clean running water and a place to dispose of dirty water. The health department inspects the truck, and operators must take a basic food safety class to become certified food managers and obtain a vending operator’s permit from the county Department of Permitting Services (with additional licenses for each helper onboard).
Food truck owners acknowledge that their businesses require far less capital than a restaurant. But Missy Carr, co-owner of the Go Fish! truck, says there “seems to be this idea that when you open a truck, you have no expenses and everything is profit.” In fact there are many expenses—licenses, taxes, vehicle and liability insurance, the cost of the truck, plus maintenance and gas, renting space in a licensed food service facility and, of course, food and staff. In addition, food trucks in Montgomery County are not permitted to operate past dusk—so in the winter months that limits them to lunch.
And because of their size, the trucks can only sell limited quantities of food at a time. “We have a lower earning potential” than restaurants, Carr says.
That hasn’t stopped some brick-and-mortar competitors from complaining—particularly about trucks that park near restaurants and sell the same kind of food (though it’s unclear how often this occurs).
Welch and Susan Scala-Demby, zoning manager for the permitting services department, say there’s not much they can do if the trucks have the proper licenses and are legally parked.
But Jeff Heineman, owner of Grapeseed American Bistro + Wine Bar and Freddy’s Lobster + Clams in Bethesda, worries that if the trend becomes as popular here as it is downtown, it could affect restaurants’ already-slim profit margins and put some out of business. Heineman says he pays $100,000 in property taxes alone for his two restaurants, and he doesn’t like the fact that trucks can do business in parking spaces that potential restaurant customers might want to use.
Still, competition is a good thing for consumers. Of all the gripes about food trucks, Scala-Demby says, “never has anyone complained about the food being bad.”