Food Trucks Feeling Post-Shutdown Blues

Diners line up at the BBQ Bus parked outside Farragut Square - Ben Kamisar/Georgetown

Diners line up at the BBQ Bus parked outside Farragut Square – Ben Kamisar/Georgetown

The shutdown may be over, but the struggle is just beginning for one of the most essential sectors of our nation’s capital: food trucks.

October’s government shutdown spelled disaster for many food trucks who saw profits slashed as many of their customers sat at home furloughed or were spurned from site-seeing in the District. Doug Povich, the co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck who also serves as the chairman of the DC-Maryland-Virginia Food Truck Association, estimates that business decreased between 30 to 50 percent at most trucks during the shutdown.

“That’s a big hit. These trucks do not operate, contrary to popular belief, on huge margins,” he said. “To take away a third to a half of your business is problematic to say the least.”

Red Hook, a popular truck that serves lobster and shrimp rolls, usually has an average ticket price of over $15. But when the government shut down, Povich said that customers began scaling back their purchases. The truck saw many shy away from the more expensive lobster roll and instead choose shrimp to save $7. He added that this trend was especially bad for sweets trucks that are viewed as more of a luxury and are usually the first to take a hit in their bottom line.

The shutdown came at a pivotal point for the food truck business, as colder weather spells the end of the season. Most trucks rely on strong sales down the stretch to make enough money to last through the unfavorable winter climate.

“This is really putting a kink in those plans to save enough money to make it through the winter,” Povich said. “It will be hard for trucks to make up what they lost.”

Each day, food trucks congregate outside of popular metro stations, office parks and national parks, hoping to snag tourists and employees at lunch time. But when the national parks closed during the shutdown and many agencies were thinly staffed because of furloughs, popular sites like the Navy Yard and L’Enfant Plaza were sparsely populated. That led to overcrowding at other sites like Metro Center and Franklin Square, where the variety may have been good for customers, but was bad for the bottom line of individual trucks.

“When you have no business at two of those spots, what happens is that the trucks that are licensed in another jurisdiction will go to another hot spot in DC,” Povich said. “Then, instead of having 10 trucks at Franklin Square, you’ll have 20, and that creates a domino effect.”

With the season winding down, BBQ Bus, a barbeque truck co-owned by Che Ruddell-Tabisola’s truck had to make the difficult choice to pull the truck off the road for multiple days during the shutdown to defray costs. Just prepping the truck for the new day is an ordeal, as the staff starts at 6 a.m., preparing the meats they smoke overnight and making fresh sides before the truck goes out at 10:30 a.m.

But with the severe lack in business caused by the shutdown, BBQ Bus decided the labor wasn’t worth the payoff and stayed off the road for a few days. That forced the staff to take unplanned and unpaid days off, with the end of the season growing nearer by the day.
Even now that federal workers and contractors are heading back to work, some owners fear that the lasting effects of the shutdown and a tenuous economy may leave customers unwilling to splurge on lunch.

“It looks like folks are going to come back to work, but this really affects their lunch moneys,” Ruddell-Tabisola said. “Most of the contractors are not getting reimbursed for the time they had to take off….when they come back to work, they are going to be more likely to bring their lunch from home to save money.”

With all of the challenges that the shutdown created for the business, Ruddell-Tabisola said that he is grateful that the government is open again, but fears that the situation may come up again. And from his perspective, the nation’s leaders in Washington could learn a thing or two from the food truck business.

“At BBQ Bus, there are four families that depend on this business to make payroll every two weeks,” he said. “There are times during the winter when we are not paying a salary, but all the bills get paid, all the staff gets paid…and our elected leaders feel as though they don’t have to do that, and it’s just unacceptable. It’s not a responsible way to run a business, it’s not a responsible way to govern.”

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