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Meshelle Armstrong Headshot

Food Truck Fever

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When an idea for a restaurant transforms from a dream you've yammered on about for years into a reality, the soon-to-be-restaurateur needs to make a real real-estate decision. Location is usually the first factor considered. We made ours 10 years ago, before food trucks roamed the earth.

Prior to opening Restaurant Eve, Cathal and I went through all the other necessary tasks reviewing potential competition in the area, site visibility and local market demographics. When we researched economic information, traffic counts, crime statistics, population density and the local zoning ordinances of Alexandria, we came to a conclusion: D.C. may be a sounder choice.

We were idealistic. We decided to go the road less traveled and set up shop where we lived, in the historic district of Old Town. Industry friends laughed and thought we were crazy, saying, "Old Town, you mean old dudes and tourists." We didn't see it that way. We loved the building, we loved the charm, we could see the potential and we wanted to put down roots. We bought into it all -- even the strict, charming regulations.

Being a commercial entity -- a brick-and-mortar establishment -- in a historic district, you'd better have plenty of Xanax and cash before you even begin the extensive process. Carry an attorney and architect in your pocket during this period, and you'll only be one year behind schedule.

The planning commission reviews special-use permits before they go before the city council. The permit governs everything from our cooking style, pounds of trash we can generate and the hours we can operate.

We are also required to send notices to every property owner in the area immediate to the potential restaurant to attend our hearing. We present our intentions, most especially how we plan to arrange and offer parking to guests and patrons so it will not have a negative effect on the neighborhood.

Then you have another hearing, this time before the Alexandria Old and Historic District Board of Architectural Review. It governs our paint colors, lighting fixtures, signs, window ratios, furniture, railings and planters.

Zoning and code enforcement determines your seating-to-bathroom ratio, outdoor encroachment variance and a zillion other necessities. The health department (of course) and sometimes the preservation society have a say -- which comes at serious cost to restaurateurs -- all before the taxes: common area maintenance fees or real estate, business, personal property, meal tax, sales and use tax, litter tax, etc.

But we love our Alexandria, and our Alexandria loves us -- I think.

I am perplexed, and this is where we restaurateurs are left scratching our heads. For years we were denied permission to place a chalkboard sign on our sidewalks promoting our lunch specials so as to not affect the nature of our historic atmosphere. Yet, no one seems to bat an eye that billboards on wheels can roll into the middle of the Old Town square, park in two spaces and serve food.

Food trucks serve food, and restaurants serve food. Will the strict regulations governing restaurants be lifted since food trucks could not possibly comply? Will the guidelines be changed? Will I now be permitted to erect a huge pink sign? Can my graphic logo be larger than 2.5 feet by 3 feet? I can now pick my own furniture and decide when and how long I want to stay open?

Because if not it would be commercially discriminatory.

This is one reason we restaurants oppose our city's intention of food trucks. Rules must apply to all, if not, a new set of guidelines need to be created or deregulated for all.

Try this: Imagine your industry goes mobile, 'Architects on Wheels', or 'The Boutique Bus', now has permission to operate near your office and capture your potential business; but since the business model is 'different', your livelihood is treated differently.

Of course you'd welcome the fair competition.

I am a native of Alexandria and chose this city for my restaurants. Longevity, charity and good business acumen are a few factors that build community. Fleeting, in-and-out trucks do not have roots to an area and can just leave if business, weather and tourists don't suit them.

However, we -- in the same circumstances -- have to stand strong and rely on our best efforts in order to stay in business. Restaurants are substantial economic players and generate thousands for our city. If we generate less, the city generates less -- will that help the city budget?

Or is that pork taco more important?

I do not doubt that trucks will pay sales taxes to the city, but what about the other taxes? Will food trucks contribute to our charities, historic structures and boards? When you ask me for a donation dinner valued at $500, or to add to the kitty for Christmas Tree lights on King Street will you be writing to them too?

Restaurants not only generate money for the city, we donate thousands of dollars of food and, especially, our own time -- time away from our restaurants -- to participate in events that directly benefit local charities and to preserve historic Alexandria landmarks.

We comply with all of the rules to be a part of this community. Remember, we bought into it.

I believe in entrepreneurship -- food truck owners and restaurateurs are all in the food service business. There is a need and place for these trucks. If a truck owner does have a commercial kitchen already in place in Alexandria, contributing to personal property taxes we will support you. There is benefit in areas where the trucks can flourish, like the Washington Headquarters Services, parks and industrial areas without cafes, and even school events.

Our concerns are not created to stifle competition or deny customer choices. Please don't assume we restaurants are just in fear of truck competition, we compete with each other daily -- Opening and maintaining a restaurant requires a lion's heart.

We fear the unjust.

Who will regulate the unscrupulous? Who will prevent a coffee truck in front of a coffee house? Will a bakery truck be justified to park in front of my bakery? I swept the street, planted the flowers, pay litter tax and then someone who buys a cupcake from a truck can throw their wrapper in my litter box and proceed to use my bathroom. Will the city then abate some tax or provide community toilets? Will the city allow its own first dibs on operating a truck here? Will the city need to employ more health department inspectors on my tax dime to ensure proper inspections? Will I be able to consent in a hearing so I know their parking intentions as restaurants must? Will you going to forget about the Mom & Pop who put down roots in Alexandria before your food truck fever?

Or is that pork taco more important?