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Restaurant Talk: Food Trucks on the Decline?

by Nick Freshman | January 21, 2013 at 9:00 am | 2,640 views | 50 Comments

Restaurant Talk is a new, occasional feature written by Nick Freshman, a native Arlingtonian and co-owner of Spider Kelly’s and Eventide Restaurant in Clarendon.

Hello ARLnow readers! I have been a fan of this site since its earliest days, and I am now proud to be a contributor. I am amazed at the dining public’s bottomless appetite for content about restaurants and food culture. As an operator, I think this is great, and the attention certainly contributes to every operator’s success. However, there does seem to be an occasional disconnect between the dining public and restaurant professionals. I hope to offer a bridge between the two by providing an insider’s perspective on trends and issues that pertain to our business. And since I am a local, and this is the most local of websites, it will have an Arlington twist.

To kick things off, I’ll take advantage of the New Year theme and start a discussion about one food trend that should be of great interest to many who live and work in Arlington. In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss other trends and give you a chance to get your burning restaurant questions answered in a live Q&A.

Food Trucks: I’ll Skip the Politics, Thanks

The 'Pepe' food truck makes its debut in ArlingtonAhhh, the food truck: bringing funky food to the cubicle masses in guerilla form. What an idea, albeit an old one in Arlington. Ever had a pupusa from the trucks that hover around our construction sites? Tasty. The concept has been around forever. Nonetheless, the convoys roaming the county now represent a huge trend, and it’s growing. The Post just ran a piece recalling that during the 2008 inaugural there was one food truck operating in DC. One. This year, there are over 100. Thirty of them will be there to feed the inaugural masses today. For our recent holiday party, in fact, we hired a couple of trucks to camp out in the alley behind Spider Kelly’s for our staff to enjoy, including Big Cheese (I recommend the “Thrilled Cheese”) and District Taco (the carnitas is a favorite).

But for the consumer, the question remains: How many trucks can the market reasonably sustain? Business Darwinism will cull the herd in 2013 for two reasons. First, just because it’s on a truck with a cool paint job doesn’t mean it’s great food. Sometimes it is, sometimes it ain’t. There are only so many spots they can park in, and the service window is short. The ones that don’t truly offer something special will fade out.

Second, sometimes people want to sit down at a table inside to eat, even at lunch. Even if they don’t, most eaters assume that by sacrificing the comfort of a chair and a plate, they’ll receive a commensurate decrease in price. However, price points on these trucks can rival or exceed the restaurants they’re parked in front of. This again raises the bar for the food inside the truck: If it’s not better, cheaper and more convenient, customers will seek a spot that is. Is it worth it to squat on a curb for your meal if what’s inside that foil wrapper is just mediocre?

You, the dining public, will decide their fate with your wallets. Will there be 100 trucks prowling at noon this time next year? I wouldn’t bet on it.

In 2013, will you be visiting food trucks as often, more often or less often than you did in 2012? Let us know in the comment section.

I look forward to hearing from all of you, and if you ever want to come by to share your thoughts with me in person, pull up a barstool at Spider Kelly’s or Eventide and let me have it. But please, buy a drink first.

Nick Freshman is a native Arlingtonian who grew up on the North side and now lives on the South side. After earning an English degree in college, he saw his only viable career option to be behind a bar. Time spent learning the business in the dining rooms and kitchens of restaurants in town — and one awful year in a cubicle — led him to venture out on his own. The first leap was a Five Guys franchise which is still his favorite burger. With his partners, he is an owner of Spider Kelly’s and Eventide Restaurant in Clarendon. On days off you can find him eating and drinking in Arlington with his three toughest critics — his wife Meredith, another local, his daughter Evelyn, a rising star at Oakridge Elementary, and their cat, Butter.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com. This article is not sponsored nor the result of any business arrangement.

Section: Opinion | Tags: ,
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  • CourthouseChris

    Lol, nothing biased about this one.

    • Hollywood

      You, the dining public, will decide their fate with your wallets.

      Unfortunately this is not true since the government has kindly decided what we can do with our wallets for us. The politicians should allow Arlingtonians to decide for themselves if food trucks are worthy of their patronage.

  • MarceyRd

    Have always been curious to try a food truck, but since you say they are expensive and not always good, I think I will stick to restaurants. Thanks for this helpful column. Love your bar!

    • ArlEater

      MarceyRd do not fear – you can get a phenomenal sandwich from one of the preeminent chefs in the DC market (Jose Andres) for under a ten spot. Three are tons of selections out there that are a GREAT deal for your wallet & your mouth. Give it a try and support a small, local business. After all, that’s how Pupatella got started, and they are now into an expansion in their bricks & mortar space on Wilson.

      • Nick Freshman

        I think Pupatella is an excellent example of a truck, or in their case, cart that made the transition. Their pizza is fantastic, and they seem to be doing so well, they just expanded. To me, their menu seemed better suited to make the transition to a restaurant.

  • PearDPea

    I think the fact that the vast majority of food truck business is done at lunch means that people are replacing carryout from a restaurant with a food truck. So looking for a place to sit doesn’t mean much. In terms of how many food trucks there will be, the market will figure that out and the incredibly easy entry means that food trucks can come and go easily, which isn’t a bad thing. If anyone remembers food wastelands in DC such as L’Enfant Plaza and Union Station (I know not Arlington) pre food truck era, it was a pretty sad site. Having these trucks gives people a place to eat where a restaurant would not sustainable.

  • BU

    I eat at food trucks around twice a week for lunch. This takes the place of going to places like Potbelly, Chipotle, etc for the most part. In the Ballston area, there are a number of great trucks/carts at lunchtime.

  • arlvatom

    Thank God for District Taco!

    • CGull

      X 100

    • Ziv

      DT is ok, but for a good taco I would much rather get 3 from Jose at Taqueria el Caminante Charito. That is, or rather, those are pretty good tacos! Seating is limited, but he is building his business up from the truck he used to work from. Good man, very good food. Lengua, cabrito and chorizo are my favorites, in that order.
      Jesus is still working out of a truck off Rhodes near Rte 50, (Chilango?) another hard working guy and his tacos are nearly as good as TECC’s. And you can then tell people honestly that not only have you met Jesus, but you have broken bread with him!
      Tortilla, bread… No quibbles on the details people!

      • Mack

        Yeah, that’s it: El Chilango. (Free advice: Do NOT say Chingalo!) Their carnitas are the best in town! They’re generous and friendly; on more than one occasion, I’ve ordered three tacos, and they’ve given me two more while I was waiting.

        • Ziv

          Kind of laughing about your advice about pronouncing Chilango carefully. I tried to order shrimp picante in Costa Rica and everyone at the table froze for a second… Inverting letters can lead to rather amusing, in hind-sight, mispronunciations.

  • Columbia Pike Y’all

    There’s already been attrition in the herd which has been mostly matched by growth. Not everywhere is a Clarendon with diverse lunch options. Food trucks make a huge impact elsewhere. Take Rosslyn, for example. Almost entirely corporate chains. When the option is “sitting” in a Quizno’s or Chipotle or other tired chain versus getting something from someone who cares about food, is more interesting, and likely fresher, if there’s no place to sit, you can always take it from the truck and eat back at your place of business.
    What has hurt food trucks the most has not been an overabundance of food trucks. In Rosslyn, it has been questionable regulations set up to do nothing but make their lives difficult. People like me lose out on variety and craft food, because Quiznos and Chipotle would not be getting my dollars anyway.

    • tomaj

      I work in Rosslyn, and I totally agree. My favorite food in the whole neighborhood is a food cart (not truck) serving Bengali food on the corner of Lynn and 19th. There’s no good food, none, in the rest of the area.

  • ArLater

    U mad bro?

    -Food Trucks

  • NoVA RN

    Right, brah. Why should I take anything you say about food trucks seriously, when you own SPIDER KELLY’S?

    • Billy Bob

      I was just about to say that!

    • Nick Freshman

      Was that a knock that I am hopelessly biased against trucks, or that the food at Spider Kelly’s is bad? I wasn’t sure. Thanks for reading the piece either way.

      • NoVA RN

        To be frank, It’s more the fact that you own a restaurant in Arlington County and you’re writing an article about a competitor to your businesses. I’ve honestly never had the food at Spider Kelly’s, though I’ve been there several times and I’ve never found it to be up my alley with respect to nightlife.

        • NoVA RN

          And, before all of the grammar fanatics jump down my throat: it’s*.

        • http://www.arlnow.com ARLnow.com

          Both Spider Kelly’s and Eventide are primarily evening businesses. They’re not really impacted by competition from food trucks, which are mostly a breakfast and lunch phenomenon. Plus food trucks don’t serve alcohol…

        • NOARL Eater

          Uh, wasn’t the writer actually complimenting food trucks and the value/quality that many of them bring? While he cautioned that some might be just as expensive as a restaurant on a per-meal basis, and gave a guess as to how many he thought might be around in the future, he gave a generally glowing review of the concept. If you can’t see the non-biased viewpoint he gave then your reading comprehension is poor. Would you prefer someone NOT in the food industry write a piece about this? I guess if you own a MLB baseball team you can’t have an opinion about the quality of play in the Japanese league, or the Mexican league, after going there and studying their operations? Open your mind NoVA RN.

  • fedworker

    And we all know that food trucks aren’t as sustainable as the hundred of brick and mortar froyo joints in Atown.

  • bobbytiger

    On the other hand, ever heard of “brown bagging” it? Not only do you know who and how the food was prepared, but I suspect it is done at a fraction of the cost, both in terms of time and money saved.

    • drax

      Everyone wants to get out of the office and get out of the rut of the same old leftovers now and then.

      • bobbytiger

        You have the need to get out of the office. Great. But, leftovers? Never entered my mind.

  • novasteve

    Why not set up your own food trucks? It’s not like they can have truck bars, you still get the ultra profitable alcohol sales. What, six bucks for a rail drink when rail alcohol costs $10 per liter? You can sell a bottle of miller lite for 5 bucks when you probably paid 50 cents for it.

    • CourthouseChris

      Truck bars… that’s an idea. Wonder if they could be legal in the few open-container areas of the country.

    • Buckwheat

      My favorite portable bar
      http://www.pubcrawlerofaustin.com/

      • drax

        Yep, those are in cities all over the U.S. now. They’ll never come here due to our ridiculous laws.

    • ChefJ

      STEVE – Do a little bit of homework before you wear your ass for a hat!!! What planet are you buying .50 cent Miller Lites and $10 Litres of sauce? BTW – they have truck bars in Hong Kong – thank VA ABC for the rest.

      • novasteve

        Why is it that I can see rail liter bottles of whiskey, rum and vodka in ABC stores for less than $10? And the public gets more expensive prices than retailers do, especially if they buy in bulk. I didn’t realize we live in Hong Kong. Never said it was good stuff, but crap like aristocrat, popov, etc are cheap. And bars use that stuff as their rail drinks.

        • Anon

          Actually in VA restaurants have to pay retail for liquor and do not get discounts for buying in bulk. They have to buy liquor directly from ABC stores just like us.

      • CourthouseChris

        Come on, Steve makes a valid point and does so reasonably. You on the other hand sound like you’ve been hitting the sauce at bit too hard. No reason to be a j erk about it.

  • Buckwheat

    We see less food trucks because Arlington declared war on food trucks. It is unfortunate to be denied creative food.

    Spider Kelly’s has good happy hour beer, but the food is atrocious.

    Eventide has great food on the 2nd level. The bars, downstairs and rooftop, have been a disappointment.

    • drax

      Exactly. For him to claim it’s going to be all about the market masks that fact.

      Spider Kelly’s used to have some really good food. Haven’t been since it became douche central though.

      • CW

        Go before 8 PM, sit on the side with the booths, food is as good as ever and the bros arent out yet.

    • Columbia Pike Y’all

      +1

    • Hurley

      I’ve only eaten there once but I enjoyed it. The fried chicken really surprised me.

    • SARL

      -1 on the SK bar food comment… sorry. I gotta say I love SK’s food. And it’s one of very few truly reasonably priced options in this area. I’ll even hit it up for dinner when I’m not there for a shtshow night of drinking. I agree with Hurley on the fried chicken compliment, which I’ve had several times as chicken & waffles there.

      • PearDPea

        Spider Kelly’s has way better food than it needs to have. I’m sure it would be easy for them to have bowling alley food and it is far better, even though it is pretty simple stuff. I’m too old to go there for the Friday and Saturday night business, but it is a great place for a weekend lunch or to watch NFL football on Sunday. Glad it is locally owned and not whatever chain was supposed to go there too.

  • len bias

    Uhh, yeah bro. I work at Lenfant plaza, where on any given day there’s 10 to 15 trucks outside the metro. I am there all the time as are thousands of other people. Not because its trendy. Most days I just want a chicken and rice from a halal truck. Or some bulgogi. The only place I can get those is from a truck.

    • Nick Freshman

      Hey, I could very well be wrong–happens all the time. In a year if there are more trucks, good for them, and I hope you all point it out. But bias? You can argue that it might be in my financial interest to see less trucks succeed, I guess, but that doesn’t mean I am biased in hypothesizing about their future success. It’s my job to try to evaluate who will do well and who won’t to help forecast our own business. To bring personal bias into it leads to bad decision making. Besides, competition in Clarendon comes at us from all directions. In some ways, food trucks are the least of it. Just look at all the restaurants and bars opening around us–multi-national chains, lots of deep pockets. I never even see food trucks up here, and we aren’t even open for lunch.

      I could be blind, given that I have never run a food truck, and I am only occasionally a patron, but I don’t see the bias. Either way, I’m glad to see the discussion out there.

  • GrandArch

    You, sir, with all due respect, are no economist. You’ve suggested the number of food trucks will decline because of factors that are constantly at work. People usually do look at the trade-offs of price, comfort, variety, and quality. It seems that you believe that these factors have been ignored until now but will begin influencing decisions by consumers and food truck operators. Could it be that consumers simply look at their choices, taking into account all the various factors, and choose food trucks nonetheless?

    On a personal note, I’ll vouch for the food options in Arlington being very limited in variety (especially for such a populous and wealthy county).

  • ArlingtonEFC

    I’m a enthusastic supporter of food trucks, both with my wallet and my recommendations to friends and coworkers…but I can’t argue with Nick’s general hypothesis here.

    I can’t speak much to the Arlington specific food trucks, but near where I work in DC (Union Station) there is a daily parade of trucks along Massachusetts avenue that has swollen from 1-2 per day up to 8-10. I get food from them frequently and quite often think to myself that the market is now oversaturated. There’s simply not the demand to handle that many trucks, and I see quite a few with no lines at all at 12:30 on a weekday near one of the busiest working and traveling areas in the District. And that’s in NICE weather. A day like today, when it’s 25 degrees outside? Forget it.

    I like the food trucks for the variety I can get quickly and easily. But I do think there will be a little culling of the herd in the next year or two. I don’t see how this many can stay in business.

    Then again, two years ago I went to Portland for a week and ate at a food truck every day for lunch and that relatively small city seemed to be supporting a much larger population of trucks, so I could easily be proven wrong. But of course, DC/MD/VA is definitely not Portland, culturally.

    In addition, I for one welcome the perspective of a local restauranteur to ArlNow. Hope the response to this first effort doesn’t dissuade you from writing your next column, Nick!

    • http://nationleprechaun.com/ jinushaun

      The problem with your Portland anecdote is that you were a tourist in Portland. You could do the same in DC right now with the over-saturated food truck market.

      • ArlingtonEFC

        Indeed, it’s just anecdotal.

  • 50 Cent “Rocks”

    Nick, you should end the shameful practice of charging an additional .50 for “rocks” with whiskey at Spider Kellys. This really grinds my gears. If I order Jameson on the rocks for 7.50 I think the ice should be free.

    • drax

      I think the problem is that you’re at Spider Kelly’s.

  • http://nationleprechaun.com/ jinushaun

    I agree, the food truck bubble will pop this year and market forces will drive it down to a more reasonable number. Something is not right with the world when you have food trucks involving 30 min waits and serving $20 dishes. Screw that!

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