Red Hook Lobster Truck: The Interview

So remember way back on Monday, when I blogged about Council member Tommy Wells’ tweet? The one which admonished the red-hot Lobster Roll truck for doing business near Eastern Market without paying a vendor fee? It also mentioned Lobster Roll patrons shamelessly devouring their sought-after seafood at Marvelous Market’s tables. Well, it is irrelevant whether you remember it at this point because I just recapped it all. Handy!

I said I would reach out to Red Hook Lobster Truck to find out more and I did. We eventually connected late Tuesday afternoon, when I had a very long conversation with co-owner Leland Morris about “The Food Truck War”, his business philosophy and whether or not they let people get tacky and mooch Marvelous seating.

The first thing Leland said to me was this, and it set the tone for the entire interview: “We do everything by the book and in the spirit of the community we’re doing business with. We want to put positive energy out there. We do this because we love the positive experience people are having.”

What would you take away from that intro, DCentric readers? Yeah. Positivity. Morris was upbeat and up front. He sounded ready to answer any question I might pose. He also sounded…nice. I found myself hoping that he had a great explanation for Wells’ tweet…

Lobster Roll truck at E Mkt Saturday pkd in frnt of Marvelous Mkt, avoiding payingvendors fee, patrons eating at Marv Mkt tables-bad idea

…which I read to him, twice. What did the proprietors of the most popular food truck in town have to say for themselves? How did he feel about the Council member’s criticism?

We take it as a directive tweet in terms of strategy; it’s what makes good business sense.

And why would they park in front of Marvelous?

Generally, we do not pull up in front of other restaurants, but one of the challenges we have to deal with is finding a legal parking spot. So what we do is we offer a discounted lunch to anyone who saves a parking spot for us.*

On that day, one of our twitter followers saved us a space which was unfortunately directly in front of Marvelous Market. It’s not unusual for us to show up and for there to be 200 people in line, which is fantastic, we love the reception we’ve received from this city. At the same time, it makes it difficult for us logistically to move to a different parking spot once they’ve lined up patiently– we can’t ask them to move. Quite frankly, I didn’t even recognize that we were in front of Marvelous Market due to the flurry of set-up activities.

Okay…what about that Vendor’s fee, per Council member Wells tweet? Were they avoiding it?

It’s not that we’re avoiding paying the fee it’s that there’s a whole process you have to go through to be at Eastern Market. We are working through that process right now and we’ve agreed to not go back to Eastern Market until we’re approved vendors. We could pull up and do business without going through all of that, but we know the feelings of the people in the area, so we started the application process and paid the vendor’s fee so no one would feel like we’re pirating business. We don’t have to do that, but we want to. And we are a draw. There were 200 people in line. As we pulled away, we got phone calls, emails and texts from other businesses, non-food sellers who said, “Thank you for coming, we appreciate all the additional business you guys brought in.”

That made sense…if one of my friends were waiting in an outrageously long line, I’d be the first one to start looking around for other retail trouble I could get in to, or alternate restaurants at which to eat, since I’m a vegetarian who hates lines. I probably would’ve spent money while my lobster-lovin’ pal dutifully stood there. But what about the brazen disrespect of customers standing in front of Marvelous Market for hours, potentially obstructing the sidewalk…and then shamelessly sitting down to enjoy a $15 roll at a business at which they spent no money?

Yes, the other issue is that people were buying rolls and sitting on Marvelous Market’s patio. And that’s not okay but those were those people’s decisions.

My goodwill started evaporating…

A lot of those people were in groups where someone got something from Marvelous Market and a few people got lobster rolls and they sat down together. It’s true though, some people didn’t spend any money. We saw that and our cashier started telling people that the patio is for Marvelous Market customers only. Once we did that people steered clear of the patio.

…and there, it’s back again! I mean it– after speaking to Leland, I started to feel an overwhelming positivity. While I only asked him for 15 minutes of his time, he spoke with me for a full hour, answering as many questions as I had, even though he was busy.

The only thing I didn’t ask him about was the Red Hook Lobster Truck’s participation in one of my D.C. peeves– “saving” a parking spot for someone else who is several blocks away. Usually, I hate when people do this. It’s lame and unfair. The first person who DRIVES up to a spot should be the one who parks in it; the smug pedestrian who is dismissively waving his hand while trilling, “I’m saving this spot for my friend” should be required to lick the asphalt clean if he wants to squat on it for his slower buddy (told you it was a pet peeve).

Having vented all of that, I completely understand why food trucks need to employ such tactics. It’s a different situation from normal space-hogging. They need a place to pull up and if they know where it will be, they can tweet it to the seafood-craving masses, who then scramble away from their desks and line up ’round the block. The system works. Since I appreciate food trucks, I won’t aim my ire at kind Leland and his wheels– but the rest of you drivers are on notice!

Finally, if reading this made you want to TRY one of these obsessed-over sandwiches, hie thee to 11th and H Streets NW, where the Curbside Cookoff will be starting in two hours. If you’re busy, don’t fret– the event goes until 9pm and repeats tomorrow:

The District’s 20 most popular street vendors will converge in downtown DC on October 7 and 8 for two full days of art, music, dance and of course the best food the vendors have to offer.