Food Trucks Stir Up Tension Within Falls Church Restaurant Ranks

Construction projects cross the Little City create an influx of customers for food truck owners and operators; however, there’s been a rising sense of apprehension from “brick-and-mortar” restaurant owners like Colm Dillon, of Ireland’s Four Provinces. (Photo: News-Press)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…actually just a food truck. And if you ask Falls Church City restaurant owners and their advocates in the Chamber of Commerce what they think of these roaming vendors, it falls well short of anything “super.”

“Who benefits from food trucks? Because the city doesn’t. The restaurants certainly don’t,” said Colm Dillon, the owner of Ireland’s Four Provinces. “We’re the ones who collect the taxes, pay the patrons, pay the mortgages and pay property taxes to the city. They’re swanning in and taking up all the money and they’re gone. No health department inspections, no licensing. We’re the ones who are paying the freight. And we’re not getting a fair shake.”

The issue is a byproduct of the City’s massive development push. With busy construction sites coming to the West End and the City’s downtown over the next several years, it’s all but guaranteed there will be food trucks posting up nearby to offer the workers an option other than their saran-wrapped ham sandwich.

For proof, look no further than the Burrito Express truck stationed near the corner of N. West Street and Steeples Court — directly across from the Founders Row site.

Run by Marina Williams with the help of her brother, the truck has hovered around Founders Row since July after acquiring its permit in June. Burrito Express opens up at 11 a.m. and closes by 2 p.m. every weekday.

But the truck is no cash cow for Williams, at least not anymore. Over a decade ago the truck was generating great revenue for the Arlington resident. Now with so much competition throughout the Washington, D.C. region, there’s no such luck.

She told the News-Press that she has a mix of OK and unremarkable days sales-wise. And once the construction wraps up at Founders Row (which is supposed to happen within the next month), she’s not sure where Burrito Express will head next. Though she plans on riding out her time by the project site, Williams doesn’t see the issue with where she chooses to park the truck.

“No, nothing wrong [setting up] over here,” Williams said. “Only thing is no business, no money…Maybe [I should] stay home, because I’m trying so hard over here, it’d be better to stay home.”

The fear of contracting Covid-19 kept her truck parked at home from March 2020 until early summer of this year. When Williams did reach out to the City to get a permit, she paid the $100 fee and began operating soon after.

However, there’s more to it than that.

Even though food trucks were also hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurants that conduct business from fixed locations are required to pay property taxes and mortgages, among other responsibilities — concerns that food truck owners do not have to deal with. (Photo: News-Press)

According to one City official, who spoke on background with the News-Press, there are multiple City departments that factor into enforcing the rules for food trucks: the Commissioner of the Revenue for food/sales and some aspect of the permitting; zoning to approve location and receive letter of permission from the property owner; police to ticket them if they don’t have a permit; fire officials, since the trucks store combustible materials onboard; and, finally, the Fairfax County’s health department, which does the inspections for the food trucks.

However, for those inspections to be done, the food truck typically has to seek them out — Fairfax’s health department will not track them down. And, typically, if the food truck shows the police their permit, they won’t hassle them for other documentation.

According to this official, “I don’t believe there is currently a single food truck in the City that is legal via a permit [and other requirements].”

It’s made for some tension from Falls Church’s Chamber of Commerce. Executive Director Sally Cole said that she also does not believe that there are any food trucks registered in Falls Church right now. And while “the license is ‘required,’ there is no enforcement and thus food trucks are setting up at construction sites and in neighborhoods without contributing any revenue to Falls Church.”

Cole said their supposed lack of licensing means they offer little support to the City financially. Even with a license, Cole added, food trucks don’t provide the same kind of contributions to the City that restaurants do.

Dillon, the owner of Ireland’s Four Provinces, said that he pays $250 in taxes to the City alone during one lunch period. To him, the decision to allow food trucks into the City to service construction workers just doesn’t make sense.

It’s one thing if a neighborhood street calls one in for a special event, but to have them diverting customers from brick-and-mortar businesses is not the way to go. “I think a meeting of some of the powers that be in the city is the best way to do this,” Dillon said. “And some of the business owners that are affected directly like the restaurants, fast food places, I think will be a hell of a way to start the ball rolling.”

Upon hearing that Williams’ Burrito Express hasn’t made any money during its short time in the City, Dillon replied that he hadn’t made any money in 18 months.

He’s trying to get ahead of this issue because he sees the construction coming downtown for both the Broad and Washington project, as well as the City Center project, as his meal ticket out of his own establishment’s pandemic-induced funk.

Adding to construction, he believes that office workers will be returning to their place of work as tech giants Amazon and Apple come back — which is currently slated for January 2022.

By that time, the Four Provinces will again be open for lunch. Dillon is looking forward to making his “gravy” revenue again once that day comes and doesn’t want any four-wheeled interlopers cutting into it.