Although I live just outside the city proper, in Fairfax County, Alexandria city is in many ways still my community. I shop at Giant, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s; I eat at Old Town restaurants and play trivia in Old Town bars; I watch plays at the Little Theater and watch movies at AMC Hoffman. Perhaps even more importantly, in two weeks my employer’s offices are moving from the Watergate to Duke Street, right at the edge of Old Town. I already spend a tremendous amount of time in Alexandria city, and I’ll soon be spending nearly all my days working here as well.
There are a great many reasons to love Alexandria, but one thing this city is sorely lacking is a robust food truck culture. I have little doubt that existing brick-and-mortar restaurants aren’t excited at the prospect of competing with a horde of nimble upstarts who have lower overhead and fresh ideas. But competition breeds innovation, and food trucks both create and expand niche and otherwise underserved markets.
An example close to my own heart can be found in my hometown: Portland, Ore. Only two years ago, a couple of paleo diet enthusiasts launched a modest Kickstarter for $5,000 to fund a food truck they planned to call Cultured Caveman. Now, regardless of what you think about paleo, there’s no question that this is a niche market. Dedicated paleo restaurants simply don’t exist — at least, they didn’t in 2012. But the Cultured Caveman folks found a groundswell of community support, easily surpassing their fundraising goal and expanding from one cart to three, spaced throughout town, in less than two years. Just this past March, they successfully exceeded a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign to open their first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
There’s no way this couple of young, 20-something entrepreneurs could have gambled on a full restaurant right out of the gate, with no real capital, no experience as restaurant owners, and no idea whether they’d be able to attract a clientele with a menu so strictly limited in concept. But with a small level of overhead and a big dream, they parlayed a few thousand dollars into a citywide franchise that has made many thousands of Portlandians happy. People with celiac disease or lactose intolerance, people avoiding processed sugar and chemical additives, people who simply care about organic produce and grass-fed meat — they all now have a set of prepared-food options where they know that literally everything on the menu will meet their unique dietary restrictions.
I don’t know whether Alexandria could be home to a success story of exactly this type, but my real point here is that nobody knows. We can’t know unless the political process steps out of the way of entrepreneurs who want to put their money at risk in order to bring the people of Alexandria new options. Let consumer preference reveal itself by lifting food truck restrictions and letting innovation flourish. Let us all find out which great untried ideas are out there that we’ll someday wonder how we ever lived without.
[Cross-posted at The Lesson Applied.]