Food trucks driving the lunch scene in DC

Residents all over Washington are eating food bought out of the side of a truck, as the popularity of the mobile kitchen movement makes its way along the East Coast.

“I think people’s willingness to try food off a truck is definitely changing with the popularity,” said Stephan Boillon, who has been running the restaurant-on-wheels El Floridano for about a year.

For many, food trucks represent the innovation that happens when times are tough. Boillon, for instance, was trying to open a “brick and mortar” restaurant for more than a year during a bad economy before he decided that a food truck was something he could do without a bank’s approval. “The biggest payoff for me is that instant gratification of giving someone a sandwich and getting feedback right away,” he said.

Other trucks, such as Austin Grill, have expanded out of a restaurant. Austin Grill has six brick-and-mortar restaurants in the D.C. metro area, but since March, their truck has been traveling all around town.

Wade Breaux, the vice president of marketing for Thompson Hospitality, which owns Austin Grill, said he believes the backing of a restaurant is helpful.

“I would find it quite daunting to get into the food truck business if you didn’t have a restaurant,” he said.

“Personally I hate the idea of McDonald’s doing a food truck. I think it ruins the charm,” he said. “We thought we were small enough it would be a good fit for us.”

The learning curve is steep — new truck growing pains include the permit process and developing a strategy for the best locations, Breaux said. And the paperwork can be “cumbersome” because the trucks can cross through multiple tax zones daily driving from D.C. to Virginia to Maryland.
Fortunately, the competitors are friendly. “Everyone plays really nicely together,” Breaux said. “You don’t poach people’s customers. I was worried we would be seen as sort of a corporate food truck, but everyone’s been great.”

Most of the owners know each other, and the early adopters pooled to form the DC Food Truck Association. But the food-truck business is small in more ways than one. Inside the trucks, every inch of space is used – almost like a jigsaw puzzle, Breaux noted. “It’s a very claustrophobic area.”

The best way to eat from a food truck is to walk outside and find one. For instance, on Fridays at Farragut Square –  known among the trucks as “Farragut Friday” – finding a wide selection is easy, with trucks lined up around the park.

Twitter is the near-universal method through which food trucks advertise their location.
Dangerously Delicious Pies and Curbside Cupcakes both tweet special flavors found on the truck daily. And the Sweetbites truck recently announced on the site that it would be selling royal wedding cupcakes in honor of the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Websites including conveniently aggregate the tweets and plot truck locations on a map.

Using social media creates a direct line of contact between customers and the folks who hand them their food and helps cultivate a carnival-like atmosphere wherever the food trucks park.
Breaux said if owners aren’t having fun operating the food truck, they’re probably not doing it for the right reasons.

The food – and its prices – ranges from cheap to elegant. The lobster roll from the Red Hook Lobster Truck is a little pricey at $15 (more for a full meal). Seven dollars buys a large Cuban sandwich from El Floridano or six wings from Austin Grill, where they seem to have performed some magic that keeps the sauce from making too much of a mess for a lunch break. At those prices, you can still enjoy a huge $2 bag of restaurant-style chips along with salsa from Austin Grill and a $2 frozen yogurt cone from Sweetgreens.

Boillon said aside from the “ghost town” months of August and December, the food truck business in D.C. remains pretty steady. “It’s definitely busier when the weather’s nice,” he said. “But if people want different things, they’re willing to stand in the rain and stand in the snow and wind to get it.”