DC Food Truck Flourishes Despite Government Regulation

IMG_6618Antoinette McLain, or “Toni” as she is known to her friends, was working for the federal government as a space management specialist when she knew she wanted a change. At 34, she left to pursue one of her dreams.

She flew to the Midwest to buy a truck, then drove it back to Washington, DC. “I wanted to invest in something,” she said. “And the food truck business, or industry, was the up-and-coming thing.”

So Toni founded Street Cream, a bright red food truck that sells hand-scooped ice cream, sundaes, and shakes to customers all around the District. She wanted to create a truck that stood out compared to the typical white ice cream vans that crowd the streets.

“We try to do something different than the rest of the trucks,” she said. “We try to interact with people and create more of a community.”

It’s obvious that this is an integral part of Street Cream’s mission. Customers approaching the food truck are greeted warmly and welcomed as friends. Three times during my interview, Toni stepped away to make sure her customers were able to get their ice cream as quickly as possible.

These strategies help Street Cream maintain repeat customers. Toni and her team have made such an impression that tourists will often go home and tell their relatives to visit Street Cream when they travel to DC.

Though Toni is succeeding well on the business side, dealing with the government is another issue.

At first there weren’t that many rules, Toni said. The only principle was “first-come, first-served.” She would often wake up in the early hours of the morning or even the night before in order to claim one of the prized parking spots on the National Mall. These spots are especially desirable because of the high tourist traffic.

“Things were great that way,” she said. “But now the government’s come up with the Mobile Roadway Vending Lottery system.” The new system assigns parking spots to food trucks ahead of time to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity.

The new system also created sidewalk restrictions, distance restrictions, and other minor rules for the trucks to follow. To make matters worse, though Street Cream has all the necessary DC permits, the enforcement of the lottery system has now been given to the Park Police, which is run by the federal government.

The Park Police drive down the streets that cross the National Mall and force food trucks that are not in their assigned lottery spots to move. In fact, this happened to the Street Cream truck just as I walked up for the first time that afternoon – making Toni pack up and drive a few blocks away.

I asked Toni what would happen if she refused to move. “They’re actually locking people up,” she said. “One of my other colleagues has been arrested three times and had to do community service – for selling ice cream.”

Though Toni has been trying to apply for a new permit to get in the revised lottery system, no one in the government seems to have any answers about how to do so.

The food truck community has banded together in spite of the new regulations. As I was talking to Toni, a man from a food truck parked down the street brought over some food for Toni and her employees. “We trade,” she said. “They satisfy our hunger and we satisfy their sweet craving!”

Toni is busy enough without having to comply with the ever-changing regulations of the federal government. “When you’re a small business owner, you don’t get a break,” she said. “But it’s all a part of my future goals.” One day, she wants to expand Street Cream to a franchise.

So why ice cream? “Everyone loves it, they’ve been loving it for hundreds of years, and they’re going to love it until the world ends.”

First published at Opportunity Lives.

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6 responses to “DC Food Truck Flourishes Despite Government Regulation

  1. Your ‘worse’ may be my tastier. Fewer customers may be important to my choice depending on the situation. The owner must have been dedicated enough to go through the application process. Competition still exists.

    It seemed the site you posted on panders to an automatic anti-regulation bias. Some regulation may be good. I was not convinced that in the situation you described, the regulation you described was bad. Maybe I did not have enough information.

    • So would you advocate a similar policy for restaurants? The government should assign the best locations equally to restaurants? Or universities? Or churches?

      • Yes, if they were mobile, and if at the prime location they were seeking space were limited… Yes, all should have equal opportunity.

        • So let’s say a new lot opens up at a prime location. Should the government hold a “lottery” to decide which of the churches or restaurants that do not currently exist (a.k.a. “mobile”) gets the land?

  2. I like a government that insures healthy food and equal opportunity. Now I know that In DC I can purchase food from a truck vendor with peace of mind concerning my health AND my concern for social justice.

    • So you’d be happy if a food truck with worse food, fewer customers, and less dedicated owners got just as much time on the National Mall as a food truck with the opposite? (Because that’s what happens now). Why is letting them compete a bad thing?

      The health issue is irrelevant here – I’m not saying that the DC health permits should not exist.

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