The Story of the Food Truck Vendor Trying to ‘Save the World One Cookie at a Time’ — But Only If City Hall Will Let Him
If it’s a Thursday and you walk a couple blocks from Union Station in Washington, D.C., only a couple hours after government employees have sat down at their desks, you’ll find a line of colorful trucks at metered parking spots along Massachusetts Avenue. Passing by you’ll smell a smorgasbord of food.
We stop at blue truck with Cookie Captain and the Milk Man painted in orange along it’s side. A 27-year-old man wearing a winter hat bearing a Cookie Monster face opens the door and instantly we feel a rush of warm air and smell a heavenly mix of snickerdoodle and chocolate chip. As Kirk Francis welcomes us inside his cramped truck, you begin to realize you could have worn a T-shirt, even though it’s in the 40s outside. It’s hard not to just stand, eyes closed, your head only a couple inches from the ceiling, and take it all in solely through your olfactory system.
Then, Francis (the Cookie Captain himself) and his sidekick Woodrow Covington (the Milk Man) kick you out — actually you reluctantly step out seeing they need the space to work — and you set yourself up gazing at the operation from the front service window.
“I’m absolutely obsessed with cookies. I have been since 4-years-old,” the Captain said as he flattened snickerdoodles (a few out of several dozen he was making) with the palm of his hand, which he had dipped in sugar first.
“It’s my quest to create the perfect chocolate chip cookie,” he continued as he slipped the parchment lined, commercial baking-size sheet into the wall-mounted oven where four other sheets were already going.
He’s not kidding. Francis has tried more than 20 different chocolate chip cookie recipes. Recognizing that taste is subjective, he admits though he does like his own recipe the best. Good thing, since he’s spent years perfecting it.
Behind Francis, the Milk Man is performing a similar dough flattening process with his palm after plopping dough balls onto the sheet using a scoop to keep the size uniform. Standing next to a sink with three sections — wash-rinse-sanitize required on all food trucks to meet the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service regulations — it’s hard to tell if he’s making peanut butter, chocolate chip, vegan chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin or the cookie of the day, cocoa cayenne.
It’s the Cookie Captain’s motto to “save the world one cookie at a time.” Customers would say he’s well on his way. A regular when the cookie truck is visiting Union Station (the trucks are at different locations every day), Gwyn Jones, shows up late in the day. But Francis has saved a few vegan chocolate chip cookies specifically for her.
“The prices are really good,” Jones said, acknowledging the hand-painted menu on the side of the truck showing that one cookie costs $1.25, two cookies with a carton of milk is $4.
Not only that but the flavor is spot on too (Francis prides himself in making is own vegan butter).
“[It allows me] to scratch my sweet tooth without going off track,” Jones said.
Check out Captain Cookie and his truck in this Blaze original video:
While baking inside a cramped truck and operating a business on the go (literally) may sound complicated, Captain Cookie says the biggest complication is the government — specifically a host of city regulations that seem to only inhibit food truck businesses.
“Some regulations are really restricting food trucks,” Francis said. “We should not be regulated out of existence because we are meeting a need.”
Take parking, for example. If you thought parking in a large city was difficult in your four-door SUV, you’ll never complain again when you watch a food truck parallel park between two other trucks in a spot designed for cars. Slipping into a spot isn’t the largest of the trucks’ parking woes though. As Francis explained it, parking regulations do not make conducting a business by curbside easy. Given that the trucks can only stay in one spot for two hours they sometimes have to move their whole operation in the middle of the lunch hour. Would they risk giving up a spot though? Never. The owners do the “food truck shuffle,” quickly swapping spots with each other so as not to waste time driving around for a new spot, while still playing by the rules.
Sometimes they’re not so lucky though. In only a few short months, Francis said he’s gotten between 10 to 12 parking tickets, and other truck owners are worse of than him, he acknowledged. There’s even an officer in the District notorious among the food truck owners for giving what they believe are unfair tickets when the trucks are actually in compliance with the law. For this reason though, Francis checks online frequently to see if he’s been issued a ticket, even if he doesn’t find it on the windshield.
“You have to pay them off or you’ll be booted,” Francis said. Not to mention the extra costs tacked on for missed payment dates.
In addition to the interrupting game of musical food trucks, a new proposed regulation in D.C. would require trucks to park only in spots with at least 10 feet of “unobstructed” sidewalk. The DC Food Truck Association (DCFTA) has taken issue with this proposed regulation, stating that it does “not specify what qualifies as an ‘obstruction.’”
“The biggest concern is there is all this very vague and unclear language,” Che Rudell-Tabisola, executive director of the DCFTA and co-owner of the BBQBus food truck, said of the many proposed regulations and ordinances.
Francis explained further that sidewalk obstructions based on the current language could be considered a trash can, lamp post or even a parking meter. This would make finding a spot in D.C. like “finding a unicorn,” he said.
Still, the DCFTA is happy the city is planning on updating the 40-year-old laws governing mobile food vendors in the area. One of these archaic rules requires food trucks to technically be hailed by customers like a cab. Another allows police to ticket trucks if they are open but without a line of customers.
“What business is punished for not having a line of customers?” Tabisola said, noting that the association welcomes the revisions being made to the regulations as long as they’re fair.
“You have to pass a law that applies to every industry evenly,” Tabisola continued, going back to the sidewalk obstruction issue saying “brick and motor” restaurants, for example, can apply for sidewalk waivers that allow outdoor seating to encroach into the 10-foot space and that souvenir vendors don’t have such restrictions. “Unevenly applied regulations are anti-competitive.”
This WJLA report from October includes that the District’s proposed additions to the regulations would also set operating hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and would limit the streets on which the trucks could park:
The DC Food Truck Association put together comments on the proposed regulations, which they hope will be taken into consideration before the final draft is released.
If you think D.C. is bad, take a look at Chicago. In July this year, the Windy City passed an ordinance that continued a ban on food trucks parking within 200 feet of a permanent establishment. This meant a truck parking within that space near a restaurant or even a convenience store could be fined up to $2,000. In November, some of the truck owners issued the city a lawsuit over the regulation.
As another example, this video produced by Reason TV earlier this year shows a law firm, which represents the food trucks in the Southern California Mobile Food Vendor Association, discussing how one small city in the state rushed through an ordinance that said two trucks couldn’t be on the same street as each other:
When it comes to regulations at the federal level, some might wonder how small businesses like this will fair under new rules like the employee insurance requirements of Obamacare. Tabisola said the group kept tabs on what was going into the legislation, but doesn’t think it will affect them negatively. Most food trucks are operated by only a few people and Obamacare requires employers to provide insurance if they have 50 or more employees.
Francis is involved in the D.C. food truck association and keeps a close watch on the regulatory issues that might affect the Captain Cookie. He said that he, along with the other members, are worried 80 percent of the most popular areas for food trucks in the city could be outlawed from vending.
“And we’re worried that DDOT, an unelected government agency, will have complete power over when and where food trucks can work,” he said.
But he’s confident enough that he’s already got a second truck in the works — less than a year after putting the first on the road. Just like his first truck, he said he’s “trekking all over the country to get good deals on used equipment.” (Ex. he’s going to drive to Kentucky soon for a full-szie, propane Vulcan convection oven.)
“As long as the regulations turn out well, I’ll get the second truck licensed in D.C. and Northern Virginia,” Francis said.
He said hopes to have it ready by spring. Why then? Because that’s just in time for summer, which is the busy season. Did we not mention that Captain Cookie makes ice-cream sandwiches? Yeah, tell us you don’t support his motto of saving the world one cookie at a time now.
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