Food trucks keep rolling into D.C.

Fojol and other food trucks often do other events like happy hours outside of the lunch rush.

New and old mobile culinary vendors attract hungry fans with face-to-face service, creativity and delicious dishes. 

New truck on the block

As warm weather arrived in the city, a new fleet of mobile food vendors hit the district area’s streets.

Patricia Auxier helps Dave Adams run the Top Dog food truck, one of the newest gourmet mobile vendors to join D.C.s scene.

Top Dog, a gourmet hot dog truck, joined the growing trend at the end of March, hitting areas around Tysons Corner.

“It’s getting warm outside and people want to get out and get something to eat, so I figured it was a good time,” owner and front man Dave Adams says.

The idea of the truck sprang out of a trip to China and started out as a brick and mortar business. When he heard about the boom of food trucks on city streets, his idea went mobile.

“We decided to go with a simpler, more familiar cuisine but with a gourmet twist,” Adams says. The truck’s three-item menu features a bacon-wrapped dog inspired by a popular hot dog in Arizona.

Top Dog didn’t get a permit to operate in the city, so it tours areas in Farifax County around Tysons Corner.

Customers in the area are excited to get some food truck love since most of the trucks stick to city limits, Adams says. Although, the truck hasn’t been opened very long, they have had good feedback with repeat customers, he says.

“Wrap anything in bacon and it tastes good,” he says.

Getting started

It took Adams and his business partners — his wife and another couple — a little less than a year to bring the truck to street corners. He had to navigate through legal hoops and get the old U.S. Postal Service truck revamped into the bright orange dog mobile.

Watch Adams and his co-worker Patricia Auxier talk about Top Dog and the food truck business.

It takes at least five months to bring a food truck concept to the streets, says Jeff Kelley, food truck consultant and owner of the Eat Wonky truck. Entrepreneurs hoping to start a truck will spent at least $50,000, Kelley says, depending on what kind of product will be sold.

Kelley started his truck in August 2010 and immediately used his background in real estate and knowledge of regulations to help others get started in the food truck trade.

Launching a truck involves business planning, truck design and build-out, branding and a social media strategy, along with navigating legal issues like licenses, inspections and permits. Kelley helps newcomers with these requirements.

But starting a food truck is relatively cheaper and quicker than creating another type of business, Kelley says.

Kelley has helped at least 15 people in his almost eight months of consulting with possible food truck owners. The first of his clients will be hitting the streets in coming months.

Booming business

The food truck scene in the district continues to grow, one Top Dog truck at a time.

The Fojol Bros. truck has become one of the most popular food trucks in the city. It was voted one of the best food trucks in the country by QSR magazine.

About 11 other food trucks are expected to join the metro area’s scene in the next few months, and several others have started in since March. The district’s streets have about 43 trucks serving the city’s workers  hearty lunches.

Celebrity Chef Spike Mendelsohn, who owns Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill and starred in Top Chef, announced in March he would join the movement with a Jewish deli on wheels called Sixth and Rye. The truck will serve lunch outside the synagogue at Sixth and I streets.

“In D.C., it’s just starting,” Kelley says. “Every single day or every single week, you see a new food truck on the road at this point.”

Kelley, and others in the business, point to Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., as examples of booming food truck cities. There business is expanding, too, even though those scenes have been around longer, Kelly says.

As the economy recovers from the recession, entrepreneurs are investing in something that costs less to get running than a brick and mortar concept, he says. It can cost well over $25o,000 to launch a new restaurant compared with the $50,000 for a moving shop.

Destination D.C.

And the district is a perfect city to take to the streets, he says.

“D.C. is very compact,” Kelley says. “We are on the leading edge of food truck concept and design and entrepreneurs.”

Washington’s mobile businesses are flourishing because of the scarce food options for lunch in the city, says Peter Korbel, co-founder of the popular Fojol Bros. truck. The lunch time places are mostly chain restaurants or aren’t imaginative or innovative, and newcomers can’t afford the higher rents in the city, he says.

Food trucks have the advantage of not paying rent and going where the demand is. People like to see the creative places that roll up to a corner to sell a variety of food.

“There’s no middle ground,” says Huda Aziz, who works with Korbel on the Fojol truck. “There’s nice restaurants and there’s not-nice restaurants. We’re the middle ground”

Curbside Cupcake, one of the cupcake trucks in the metro area, follows Fojol to Navy Yard on Tuesdays so customers can get red velvet cupcakes with their curry.

Around Navy Yard metro stop, where Fojol slings curry Tuesdays, there’s not much a of variety for permanent lunch stops, according to workers in the area. There’s a Five Guys and a Subway but not much else. A collection of trucks arrive in the area on different workdays to bring creative culinary dishes like curry and cupcakes.

Making enemies

Food trucks have gotten so popular, they have attracted the attention of business improvement coalitions and the city government. Several business cooperatives have submitted proposals to the City Council for restrictions on the mobile vendors.

The proposals range from an increase in taxes to banning the food trucks from parking “within 100 feet of an existing food establishment of any kind.” In March, City Council Member Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, introduced legislation to end food trucks’ sales tax exemption.

Korbel doesn’t think his moving restaurant hurts permanent establishments because his truck has a set schedule. Fojol might spend Tuesdays near Navy Yard, but on Wednesdays they are in a different area of the city.

In 2010, about 17 of the area’s food trucks, including Fojol and Eat Wonky, formed an association to better fight off any complaints.

Getting together

Not all businesses are trying to run off the moving targets. Chinatown Coffee Co. started a joint, weekly happy hour with the trucks. Every Thursday a different food truck will park in front of the H St. shop to sell dinner.

Customers can take their food inside and buy coffee, beer or wine from the shop. Fojol Bros. dished out its curry for the third week.

Esha Mumti, 22, and Emily Edens, 23, stopped by for the Indian fare. They also went the week before when Red Hood Lobster Truck sold its much-talked-about lobster rolls. They came for a cheap dinner and good food.

Trucks also attend events in the city like D.C. United soccer games. Fojol Bros. stopped by to sell its curry at Power Shift 2011 and DC Challenge in the same weekend.

While legal issues loom over the business, new trucks continue to pop up on trackers and Twitter.

(See more photos of the Fojol Bros. truck and the Chinatown Coffee Co. happy hour in the slideshow below.)

Why so popular?

On Fridays around Farragut Square, food trucks line the park for a chaotic lunchtime food rush known as “Farragut Fridays.” About 11 trucks can rim the area at times.

Office workers wait at the various vendors for a quick bite before heading back to work or, on warm and sunny days, lounging in the park. Hungry patrons can get Korean barbecue, pizza, kabobs, or cupcakes and yogurt for a sweet tooth.

Most Fridays, Farragut Square is lined with mobile food vendors, but on nicer days, office workers come out to enjoy picnics in the park with the variety of lunch choices.

Food trucks provide a variety to the everyday lunch scene, says Adams of Top Dog. The convenience, pricing and speed keep people coming back, he says.

Often the old image of the “roach coach” sends people passing by, but in the district, workers are getting used to gourmet trucks, he says.

“The people getting the hype are the ones doing a gourmet take on something and doing it well,” Adams says.

It’s not just the delectable dishes bring customers back for more.

“People like what they are buying and how they are being treated,” says Kelley of Eat Wonky.

Most of the people working on food trucks are the owners. Adams, Kelley and Korbel continue to work on their trucks.

“Most owners are very passionate about adding vibrancy to the community,” Kelley says. “It makes it a fun and engaging environment.”

Creating characters

The Fojol workers dress up in costumes and crack jokes with their customers. Peter Korbel, a co-founder of the truck, plays Kipoto.

The Fojol Bros. consider their truck a traveling carnival. They set out to bring the fun energy of the circus and carnival to the street in 2009, Korbel says. The team dresses up in costumes and speak in accents. Everyone on the truck plays a character.

“We’re in the food and entertainment business,” Korbel, known as Kipoto on the truck, says.

Fojol likes to keep surprising its customers so that when people approach the window, they never know what (or who) they are going to get, he says.

Korbel, who still works about four times a week on the truck, remembers the names of returning customers, he says. He loves the environment too much to let other team members take over completely on the road.

“Owner-operators are cultivating relationships with people,” he says.

It all comes back to the food, though.

“You can find more creative food at food trucks,” says Tim Harville, 30, who works near Farragut Square and stopped by the Sol Mexican Grill for “Farragut Friday.”

And there’s also the thrill of finding out where a truck is going to be, Kelley says.

Whatever the reason, the district’s food trucks have people coming back for more.

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