Working in Tysons Corner usually means a few things: Thousands of people, traffic headaches, non-existent sidewalks and minimal choices for lunch outside of chain restaurants, company delis or cafeterias and mall food courts.
What can a discriminating foodie do to break up the routine?
According to a few brave food entrepreneurs, the answer is food trucks. They’re outfitting old ice cream or catering trucks as mobile kitchens, targeting certain quadrants of the Vienna and McLean areas (and parts of Fairfax, Falls Church and Reston) to deliver creative, high-quality lunches to hungry workers.
The most recent trucks on the business park scene include Maple Avenue Restaurant’s MAX (Maple Ave. Express), a truck specializing in hot sandwiches; Top Dog, a bright orange hot dog truck run by Dave Adams and Mark Taylor; and a newcomer, Doug the Food Dude, who has a wide range of menu items.
While a recent story published in the Los Angeles Times says the food truck craze may be fading in big cities, Tysons Corner mobile vendors are just dipping their toes into an area that may turn out to be an untapped market.
MAX proprietor Joey Hernandez may hold the honor as the owner of the first foodie-friendly food truck resident in Tysons, during the summer of 2010. MAX, Top Dog and Doug Maheu, whose eponymous truck rotates between locations in Arlington and Fairfax counties, have been working in the area regularly since the weather began to warm up earlier this spring.
Hernandez, who owns Vienna's with fiancé Tim Ma, was attracted to food trucks as a former Tysons Corner office worker who wanted to cater to the needs of ex-work colleagues.
“When I worked [in Tysons], there was nothing,” she says at the end of a lunch rush on Howard Avenue. “So I know there’s a need for this.”
MAX comes out for lunch three days per week. The truck features pulled pork sandwiches and bulgogi wraps along with a rotating special each day.
Maheu, 46, likens his endeavor — based in a former Snap-On tools truck — to a restaurant on wheels and has a fairly large menu that includes Caribbean pork, a lobster roll wrap and a salmon sandwich.
Top Dog, hard to miss with its bright orange paint job, is out five days per week selling Sonoran-style hot dogs, Maryland-made sausages and “not-dogs," which give avocado top billing rather than a veggie or tofu dog. All on a soft-but-sturdy brioche bun.
“We wanted something that was operationally simple and familiar to people,” Adams said of finally deciding on hot dogs. “We didn’t want to serve some weird Chinese food people wouldn’t be used to.”
Just A Fad?
Even on a rainy spring day, Top Dog enticed some local workers on Solutions Drive and beyond to run out for a dog.
“There’s a generic café in our building, and [it’s the same] in most of the other buildings,” said one customer. “So having something different is nice. I had wondered for a while when we’d start seeing more out here," he said.
Adams said while the truck has experienced plenty of start-up glitches — a dead battery, forgotten ingredients and running out of ice are only the beginning of his list — he’s hoping to finish out the summer before seeing if his concept will work in the long run.
“I want to get at least a full summer so we can get a reputation,” he said. “At the end of that we’ll evaluate. We’ll see if it’s financially viable and if I’m still married. Those are the magic questions you’ve got to [answer].”
MAX has an advantage because of its affiliation with a brick-and-mortar location, albeit a tiny one. The spin-off food truck can’t have the same creative menu as the restaurant, but Maple Ave customers help promote MAX, and MAX customers sometimes make a trip to the restaurant.
“We didn’t think about that, but it’s turned out that way,” Hernandez said of the cross-promotion. “There was no real set plan. But it’s kind of worked out for us.”
Good Food — On Wheels
The other benefit of having a kitchen at the restaurant is that Hernandez can test out potential menu items.
Some items, however, don’t travel well.
“Things like our mussels, that are amazing at the restaurant ... won’t work here,” she said. “And we have a popular dessert called mochi at the restaurant, and it needs a super-cold freezer. We don’t have that.”
Adams spends about three hours each morning prepping ingredients and going to pick up the buns from Baguette Republic. Then he tries to have the grill hot and dogs ready to go each morning by 11. The lunch crowd thins out after about two and a half hours and a good day usually means he sells about 50 dogs.
One day earlier this spring, MAX was parked in a half-moon driveway near the intersection of Westpark and Jones Branch drives, where most of the patrons were familiar with the food truck and said it was a welcomed change from their lunch routine.
“Variety is always nice,” one customer said. “I went with the bulgogi. It’s Korean barbecue on a pita. I had fish tacos when I was out here last time.”
Darren Mauro, 34, who lives in D.C., said he was glad to see some food trucks coming into the Tysons Corner area, especially after hearing tales from friends who have a wide selection of four-wheeled lunch options downtown.
“This truck is definitely more interesting and higher quality than some of the other trucks,” said Mauro, who said he and colleagues have walked 20 minutes to reach MAX in a different part of Tysons.
Corey Nunez, 28, of Falls Church, said he hoped more trucks would come to Tysons to “spice things up.”
Would Hernandez mind some competition?
“I love competition,” she said without hesitation. “I know there’s a huge need [for more options]. There’s people that want Italian food, and I can’t necessarily say we’ll do Italian food anytime soon. But if there’s an Italian truck that wants to come down, absolutely. We can kind of market each other.”
Is Tysons food-truck friendly?
D.C. may be a more viable option for Adams’ operation, but as a local, he wants to give his neighborhood a shot.
“There’s more of a food truck culture down in D.C.,” he said. “But I live in Falls Church and this is kind of my neighborhood. I’d like to serve it if we can get busy enough.”
Diane Poldy, president of the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the arrival of food trucks might be a sign that people are beginning to realize they don’t have to get in their car to travel around the Tysons area.
“The big goal is to make Tysons a pedestrian-oriented community,” she said. “It’s good to get people used to the idea they can just walk [to lunch].”
Food trucks need licenses and food handling permits from Fairfax County, along with a health department permit, which requires owners to agree to on-the-spot food safety checks, and a solicitor's license. The background check, fingerprinting and solicitor's license cost $35 per year and fingerprinting carries a one-time fee of $10.
But the greatest obstacle food trucks in Tysons face is the lack of legal street parking, which limits the range of customers trucks can reach in the area.
So far, the biggest financial issue for MAX has been parking tickets.
“We just got a ticket for parking in an illegal spot,” Hernandez said. “There’s not a lot of street parking in the Tysons area, and there’s not a lot of foot traffic, so you have to find the right place.”
Various proposals about the future of Tysons Corner mention cutting down on the number of free parking structures and increasing on-street parking options, but won't help food trucks anytime soon.
It's too early to tell if the craze will last, but with luck, it could become a staple of the new Tysons Corner.
As Adams said: “There’s tons of people here and they need to eat.”