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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Future trends: Central Kitchen wants more street food

By Tim Carman
curtin picture_opt.jpg Curtin, right, with White House chef Sam Kass. (Photo courtesy of D.C. Central Kitchen)

This is the second of several posts in which we ask area leaders what trends they predict for 2011.

Michael F. Curtin, Jr. is the chief executive officer of D.C. Central Kitchen, the non-profit dedicated to feeding and training the homeless, the addicted and the formerly incarcerated. This is the first of two changes that Curtin would like to see in 2011.

Mike Curtin: I would really like to see, whether it’s through the new vending regs (PDF) or whatever, I’d like to see more opportunities for more independent operators to get into the [food] cart or the truck business. I don’t think this is too much of an affront to my restaurant brothers and sisters, but I think it’s a great opportunity for people, as was written about in the latest Young & Hungry. I guess the new person was talking about that this was a great way for people to get into the [restaurant] business without having to have this crazy amount of money and already a book or a show on Bravo or Food Network. [It would] really continue to expand the food offerings in Washington. We’re sort of getting there, but what do we have? Like a dozen trucks maybe? It’s still pretty lame.

And looking again at the folks who come through our program, this could be a real opportunity for them to make something of their lives and to really be part of a business community that otherwise they would never have had the opportunity to be a part of.

AWCE: Are you still working with the Zola group with the food cart?

MC: No. For many reasons, that whole thing just didn’t work out. The most obvious [reason] is the fact that that kind of cart, the hot dog cart, it’s just too difficult to do. And the way the regs are, you can only be at this one place…And the fact that we pay our [food cart operators], and Zola was paying part of this as well. We pay them a living wage. We pay health benefits. We pay all these other things. It’s a great business, I think, in a [food truck] now, the way things are being done, for a couple of guys or a couple of people that can make a couple of hundred bucks a day and that works. For us to keep that cart on the street, it was about $500 a day just to cover the costs, because of the labor money we were putting in…It was great, and we’ll probably give it another crack at some other point in time, but it was just too tough. Making a couple of hundred bucks a day, it just isn’t….

AWCE: It’s a losing proposition.

MC: Yeah, it was a losing proposition. We just finally said, ‘Look, it’s great to try to make a point, but we can’t make it at the expense of other programs.’ And that’s really where we were. But I do think there would be possibilities for people, in micro-enterprise opportunities, if the system was really opened up, I guess, and if people had more access to licensed kitchens or incubator kitchens where they could do that work. Unfortunately, we just can’t supply that.

AWCE: What do the regs need to look like to make this happen?

MC: I think there needs to be more flexibility in terms of the size of the carts….Some of the regs they had in place for the demonstration areas seemed to have that flexibility, but those were very narrowly defined and really only within one part of the city. So I think there just needs to be more flexibility. There are some new regs out there, floating around. I haven’t spent the time to take a look at them. But I think just the flexibility in terms of what you can have. For example, from what I understand, the On The Fly guys, those carts were approved for the demonstration area but were too long to be in other areas. So, really? A foot or something like that [too long]? It wasn’t even a foot. It was somewhere in that ballpark. But to do something really cool like, say, ‘Hey, man, why not have these in other places? Why not?’ Sort of reward creativity and ingenuity and entrepreneurship, as opposed to just continuing the same system. With the exception of the food trucks, the cart business, street food business, has not really evolved a whole lot. I know some of the restaurants get upset, and I can understand that to a point. I’ve always been a believer in “the more, the merrier.” If business is going well in one area, it’s only going to make other businesses in that area do better as well. I really believe that.

By Tim Carman  | January 3, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags:  Tim Carman, future trends  
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