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Food trucks enhance brick-and-mortar restaurants

Gourmet food trucks, now a common fixture in DC, have started to come to Silver Spring. With them comes many of the same debates, like whether these food options are taking business from restaurants in actual buildings.

Food trucks in Portland draw more customers to a block. Photo by the author.

Sligo at Silver Spring, Singular worries this is happening in Downtown Silver Spring. Is this a valid concern? Maybe not.

Food trucks are a way to fill retail gaps, figuratively and literally. Successful food trucks are ones that offer something that brick-and-mortar restaurants currently don't. They're also ways to draw hungry customers to areas of downtown Silver Spring that haven't finished developing, which could help the restaurants already there.

Right now, Ellsworth Drive between Fenton and Georgia is the only block in Silver Spring that has shops and restaurants lining it uninterrupted from end to end and on both sides. If I'm an office worker looking for a place to eat lunch, where will I go first? Probably the block where I have as many choices as possible.

I might go to Potbelly today, but tomorrow I'll want to try something new an d go to Chick-Fil-A, and so on. As a result, all of the restaurants benefit from the presence of other restaurants.

Photo by the author.
Many downtown blocks, however, have only a handful of shops or none at all. Discovery Communications didn't include a cafeteria in their headquarters on Georgia Avenue so workers would support local restaurants, but their building doesn't have any retail on the ground floor, making the sidewalks dead.

Meanwhile, popular restaurants like Jackie's have trouble drawing customers because they're too far away from other stores or restaurants for people to drop by on a whim.

Sligo worries that Skew Works, the new restaurant on Wayne Avenue, could lose business to a food truck that's started parking outside. But there's only one other restaurant on that entire block! Skew Works isn't losing customers to the food truck. They're losing customers to streets with more dining choices.

Restaurants want to draw more customers. We want to create more street activity in downtown Silver Spring. Food trucks seem like a way to kill two birds with one stone.

They're a relatively new addition to Silver Spring, and it's likely that they'll move around until finding locations that work well for them and for customers. But I don't think they'll hurt existing businesses.

With thousands of people living, working and passing through the area each day, there's no shortage of hungry people looking for places to eat. They just need to know where to find them.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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[citations needed]

This is an interesting, and very timely, debate to have, but in the absence of real numbers it's speculation. I'm sure there are some studies, somewhere, that detail the microeconomics of the restaurant business and food trucks, but I haven't seen them. In the absence of that, I'd want surveys of average restaurant business volume before and after food trucks moved onto a given block.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 16, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

The logic here is a bit disordered.

One restaurant can't draw clients. One restaurant + one food truck isn't much better, and the net increase in walk-throughs isn't going to result in more clients for the restaurant. One restaurant + 10 food trucks will bring in more people, but again does the restaurant benefit?

by charlie on Mar 16, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

I'm more inclined to think that a food truck is a substitute for a restaurant rather than creating enough density to increase the total number of customers to offset the increased competition.

by Geof Gee on Mar 16, 2011 5:03 pm • linkreport

But if your an office worker, don't you kind of know what's around your office? So if you want Chick-fil-a, won't you go there whether or not there are other restaurants around it?

The only thing I can think of on how food trucks could help is it takes you to a place where you didn't know there was a restaurant, and you decide to take a future trip to that restaurant (or you go to that restaurant right away since the line at the food truck is too long). But that has to be such a vanishingly rare scenario.

by Steven Yates on Mar 16, 2011 5:31 pm • linkreport

I do work in Silver Spring, and I also lived in Portland, OR until recently, land of the (City gov’t. promoted) food cart. The four years I was out there I never once heard this argument that food carts were bad for restaurants. Portland has a plethora of great locally owned small restaurants, and it seemed to me that the two fed off each other (pun intended). Both created places to go eat. I believe Dan is right on about the idea of concentration and creating a lively street being good for any business. And food carts are almost always locally owned businesses, which keep more money circulating in the local economy than chain restaurants, of which Silver Spring already has its fair share.

by Lou on Mar 16, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

I don't have any data to back this up, but my office is a large federal building between Judiciary Square and Gallery Place Chinatown. In 2001, when I started there were resturants and many fewer good resturants in the area. Now there are many, many more choices. The increased choices seems to have caused an uptick in "eating out" or perhaps "buying out" culture. People who remember when the area was even less desirable than when I started have commented on this too.

We don't actually have many food trucks in the area, but I can see how more choices gets people out of their offices more.

by Kate on Mar 16, 2011 6:21 pm • linkreport

SS's redevelopment has been driven by chain businesses. Some, no doubt, have contributed to the area. Unfortunately, they drive up rents and contribute to the lack of character that probably keeps SS from going to the next level. the food trucks will bring life and choice and perhaps help the area attract new, more interesting restaurants, by demonstrating an appetite for something other than Panera bread.

by Rich on Mar 16, 2011 8:16 pm • linkreport

Love the food carts. It's a sign of a vital and vibrant street culture. Survived on these through many a tramp through old Europe. Not sure the chain's that everyone bemones contributes to holding Silver Spring back, hasn't hurt Bethesda, Georgetown, etc. Silver Spring is what it is, warts and all. I love it!

by Thayer-D on Mar 17, 2011 6:05 am • linkreport

How I view foot trucks vrs brick and mortar
1. Competition is good, for the consumer.
2. More local restaurants and chains are going to food trucks to supplement their traditional outlets. In LA, many local chains have their own trucks and some national chains are moving in that direction. The whole food truck scene is about to get very corporate very soon. So enjoy it while it lasts.

by RJ on Mar 17, 2011 8:11 am • linkreport

Here's the data you guys are looking for.

Food carts draw foot traffic to neighborhoods, and even restaurant owners who were initially against them seem to favor them. At least in Portland; YMMV.

by Jennifer on Mar 17, 2011 9:05 am • linkreport

Food trucks - yum. Roslyn role call: Rebel Heroes, Sweet Bite, Bada Bing, Bandito Bar-B-Q, Sauca, District Taco, and the always there, always reliable Tasty Kabob. Awesome.

A haiku in tribute:

23 floors up
I recon your roofs at noon
yum. the special please

by Roslyn worker on Mar 18, 2011 12:17 am • linkreport

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