The last 2 years have marked an important revolution in small business entrepreneurship in Washington DC. I am talking about the rise of street food vending. In about 24 months, DC fast food has been elevated from the questionable realm of cheap and often sub-par fast food to the dizzying heights of an artsy, trendy and gourmet cuisine.
But let’s back up a little. Once upon a time, there were the hot-dog trailer stands in downtown DC – primarily in the touristy areas of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues. By default, those stands were to be avoided at all cost. Not only did they guarantee to upset the fainter of stomachs among us; they would also rip you off should you happen to get thirsty in the middle of a hot and humid day strolling down the National Mall, because they would charge you $3-4 for a tiny bottle of water.
Then the Great Recession hit DC (albeit more mildly than the rest of the country) and street food entrepreneurship started cropping up. I am going to speak primarily from my own experience in the Rosslyn business district, but I am sure there are similar stories to be told from other parts of the Greater Washington area, as well.
So first came along the occasional kebab/halal food stand. It did not look very different from the hot-dog stands but at least offered more diversity than simply eating sausages. Then, to my utmost surprise, came the taco cart – and with it came innovation. The cart looked clean, there was a person who greeted me with a smile on her face in front of the cart to take my order, she took credit card payments, and they offered 3 delicious tacos for $7.
Then came the crepe stand across on the corner of 19th and Lynn streets. Now, that was something completely new! Who would have thought that we would have the choice to eat freshly made sweet or savory crepes right on the street in Northern Virginia? That felt more like Paris or Brussels than Rosslyn!
And then came the big deluge of innovation. District Taco started dominating the lunch hours on Wednesday and Friday with their delicious tacos. (¡Órale!) Seoul Food proved that bibimbap and other traditional Korean fare has become mainstream in DC. Then came the cupcake cart, and the Indian food cart, and the BBQ cart, and even the crab roll cart. And the street food revolution took place. I call it Street Food 2.0.
But in addition to the pure joy of having so many new options to eat, I was also impressed by the sophistication of many of these businesses. They look simple on the surface, but are very cleverly run organizations behind the scenes. They have mastered the ropes of guerilla marketing and word-of-mouth advertising. They are aptly using iPads and smartphones to leverage new technologies, such as location-based social networking (see the awesome Food Truck Fiesta web site) and Square-enabled micro payments. They know how to greet customers and make them feel very welcome. They implement the basics of operations management to ensure minimal friction between the time you place the order and the time you get your food. They know how to scare the traditional competition in the face of such lunch-hour food staples as Chipotle, Chop’t, Cosi and Quizno’s.
I often wonder – is that where the smart graduates from DC’s many great colleges and universities decided to try their luck in this tight labor market? Is it the combination of smart young entrepreneurs, cultural and culinary diversity, and a city that is increasingly becoming cosmopolitan? Is that what it takes to foster micro entrepreneurship of a new, street-wise kind?
Let me know what your experiences have been? Are you seeing similar trends in other large metropolitan areas in the country?
(P.S. Inadvertently, as I was writing this blog, I came across a post from almost an year ago on a very similar topic. Apparently, other people have been paying notice to the Street Food 2.0 phenomenon in DC and Northern Virginia, as well.)