Nordin Grabsi, who has been trying to run the Ali Baba Felafel truck at the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market, may finally have to shut down his popular stand. He is unable to meet County standards for a mobile food truck, but it also seems the County standards don’t recognize the growing and changing food truck business.
As one of the commenters on the Bethesda Patch site wrote, “I hate to see this happen, particularly since food carts are becoming more popular and interesting…”.
And this is not just a problem for Ali Baba, other food carts have also moved or shut down, just when things are getting interesting. And as well as possibly outdated regulations, there also seem to be complaints from nearby businesses who view the carts as competition rather than complementary.
Is there a food hipster contingent in the County that can advocate for a change in the rules?
An Update: The City of Alexandria, VA announced a pilot program for food vendors. It is limited to existing Alexandria restaurants, but at least they are considering the changing expectations and opportunties for street life.
Elrafal serves falafel, gyro, and his motherâ€™s recipe for ful medames, a traditional Egyptian street food of stewed fava beans that is so good, it will make you rethink your relationship to legumes. The guy is really cooking. His falafel is spiced with whole cardamom seeds and accompanied by distinctly seasoned red cabbage, banana peppers, and vinegary lettuce. Itâ€™s wrapped in a thinner pita than the gyros, which get a puffier pita bread. Elrafal takes pride in his product.
In the warm weather, he hangs a parakeet cage and he had built a little wooden deck where customers could stand at the truckâ€™s window, but the County came around, told him he needed a permit, and that it would cost $2500. For a guy who sells beans, from a panel truck. The day we visited, Elrafal apologized for making us stand on a crumbling patch of asphalt and the rubber mats covering his power line. So good job there, a non-existent problem not solved.
The Clayboys shave ice stand in downtown Bethesda, a summer landmark that sets up outside the fountain at Barnes and Noble (watch John Styer sling syrup here), ran into some permit issues a few summers ago, but since the ices are well-loved by Bethesda children, this bit of civic disorder was given permit dispensation.
And Iâ€™m almost afraid to mention Jenniferâ€™s Antojito truck that occasionally parks on River Road. Kids sneak out the back of Whitman to buy tacos and burritos. Why doesnâ€™t he just park out in front of the school? Probably because his first market is the Hispanic workers paving the neighborhood with granite countertop, but also becauseâ€”imagine the neighborhood outcry.
But other communities have recognized that food carts can add economic and social vitality. Los Angeles is setting up a mobile food court and the City of Portland just released this study as a baseline measurement of land use and other issues. The report is well-summarized here, and sees a planning role in:
- identifying possible cart locations
- connecting cart operators with existing programs
- promoting innovative urban design elements that support food carts.
This last one is the most interesting. Know a dead corner that would benefit from a good hot dog? Let us know.
By the way, this is not a new idea, food carts have a creditable history in American cities and, dating to 1893, Haven Brothers in Providence, Rhode Island is the granddaddy of them all. As described online: â€śAn aluminum pick up truck masquerading as a diner that serves the greasiest food imaginable to Providenceâ€™s wastoids, insomniacs and street walkers.â€ť Aaah, city life.