Lining up for lunch

The weather was unseasonably warm in Washington, D.C., last week and the House was in recess — a perfect opportunity for hungry Capitol Hill staffers to flood the streets in search of their favorite food trucks.

But only Stix, which grills up spiced and marinated chicken and beef kabobs, was parked near the Capitol South Metro station, where the nearby entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center would seem to make it a prime spot to take advantage of the lunchtime rush.

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“Some of our Union Station customers asked us to come down here,” Stix co-owner Jane Lyons said, looking shiftily down the street and seeming to realize that, for a band of businesses that tend to travel in packs, she was all alone on that day. “We’ve only been here once before, but it’s supposed to be a great spot.”

Stix was parked at First and D Streets Southeast, about a block south of the Metro and across the street from Tortilla Coast. For staffers tired of the Longworth Cafeteria, it’s by far the closest food truck locale. Others require a bit of a commute, either by foot to Union Station or by car or Metro to L’Enfant or the Navy Yard.

“We get sick of the same four or five options over here,” said Martha Serna, a legislative correspondent for Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) who is known on Capitol Hill as a food truck connoisseur. “But not a lot of food trucks come over here very often and when they do, a lot of times there will be a long line.”

The long lines would seem to be an indication to the food truck proprietors that there’s sufficient demand in the area, and there is. But there’s also an ample amount of risk involved, and for a lot of food trucks, a high-risk, high-reward area isn’t worth it when they could just drive down to Farragut Square and be one of 15 food trucks near the White House that’s guaranteed to pull a crowd.

So what’s keeping Capitol South from seeing a proliferation of food trucks?

“It’s really one of our favorite spots,” said Mikala Brennan, who runs the popular Hula Girl food truck. “It’s a hidden secret among the few of us who go down there. But the reality is, with the one-hour parking and residential parking, there’s just not a lot of real estate.”

Hula Girl was the only food truck in that area on the rainy Monday before Stix landed the prime spot, and what Brennan says is true — all the streets surrounding the Metro station are bumper to bumper with cars that have residential neighborhood permits that allow for long-term parking. 

That’s what makes a place like Farragut Square so popular — the two-hour parking limit and business district design are perfect for the flow of food truck traffic. Conversely, down by the Capitol, only one-hour parking is available, which wouldn’t be an issue if the police were a bit more lenient in enforcing the parking limit — at least when it comes to food trucks, which provide a desirable service to those in the area.

“The cops have been enforcing the one-hour parking rule a lot more,” Brennan said. “It’s not good for us to go to a location and plan on it and not be able to serve people there, but we love Capitol Hill and wish we could go down there more.”

By “not good” Brennan means it can be devastating — an entire day’s product and profits lost either by driving around looking for parking, or by being forced to leave and slapped with a ticket after taking the time to set up.

Further complicating the situation is the code to which food truck drivers generally adhere— Brennan says she won’t, under any circumstances, park in front of a brick and mortar restaurant like Tortilla Coast, which, at the corner of First and D, takes up chunks of the scarce territory. 

She claims a complaint from one of the restaurants for exceeding the parking time limit and playing her trademark Hawaiian music is what provoked the police crackdown in the area.

“All of a sudden the police showed up and enforced the one-hour parking time limit,” she said. “That is the law, but they’re not towing cars out of there, which makes it a little frustrating. When they were doing sweeps over there, after maybe one or two incidents, we’d let it cool down before going back ... eventually [the police] move on to something else.”

A spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department said there is no special enforcement happening with the food trucks.

“We are not doing any special enforcement action in that area; any enforcement would be of existing regulations,” she said in a statement.

But there’s hope that Capitol South could one day be a food truck mecca.

“We’re still waiting for the regulations to come out,” Brennan said. “It’s a waiting game with the city. Everyone’s getting impatient because it’s been almost a year. But once we can get a permit or pay a premium to park down there, we’ll be able to stay for three or four hours.”