WASHINGTON DC – On a recent Sunday afternoon, three paddle boarders coast slowly past a pontoon boat that’s anchored in the Potomac River between the Key Bridge Boathouse and the Potomac Boat Club. The paddlers strain their eyes to read a sign on the boat; they take a few seconds to digest what they read before turning to talk to one another. Their facial expressions register confusion, disbelief and excitement — all at once.
Those on the pontoon boat are used to the “slow roll” and “creep” of boaters, kayakers and paddle boarders they’ve seen in the last two weeks. They’re the owners of Nauti Foods — D.C.’s first food boat, which launched July 26.
With hundreds of food trucks roaming the streets — and what seems like a new restaurant popping up each week — D.C. pedestrians have no shortage of food options should hunger suddenly strike. Now, those on the water have a place to grab a bite to eat.
“You can’t beat the view; this has got to be the best restaurant view in town,” says Ari Fingeroth, who, with co-owner and girlfriend Tammar Berger, sells ice cream sandwiches, popsicles, hot dogs and locally made food products to those on the water.
Fingeroth and Berger had the idea for Nauti Foods a year ago.
“We were out on the river last summer, watching all the paddle boarders go around. We were grilling and having a few drinks, and we were like, ‘I bet they’re going to want something cold to eat — a popsicle or something. Someone should be doing that,'” Fingeroth says.
The idea lost momentum over the winter, but when the conversation resurfaced in the spring, Fingeroth and Berger decided to go after it. So they approached the city and began navigating the choppy waters of the District’s laws, regulations and red tape. The hardest part of it all, Fingeroth says, was being the first.
“It was pretty much the same as food truck licensing, but there were a lot of twists because [the city] never anticipated the river,” says Fingeroth, who also owns Federalist Builders LLC, a home remodeling company. “All of the food truck laws are written as ‘mobile vending,’ ‘your vehicle’ and ‘registration’ — they’re all very vague terms. I don’t think they ever anticipated someone was going to turn around and turn those vague terms into a boat.”
After several months, Fingeroth and Berger did just that. They purchased a 1994 pontoon boat, parked it in the driveway of their Bloomingdale home and planned their business.
A Best Buy employee delivered freezers to the on-shore boat; they outfitted the pontoon with a wood tile floor and developed their brand and logo. They even decided on one of the boat’s flagship menu items: the Nauti dog — a spiral-cut hot dog, grilled to order.
“The spiral cut just makes it taste better,” says Berger, an attorney and consultant for the World Bank and co-owner of Off Road Indoor Cycling. “It actually cooks faster; you get more surface area to the grill, so it gets a little crispier all the way around. Plus, the condiments go right into the hot dog.”
In addition to ice cream sandwiches, candy bars, hot dogs and chips, Fingeroth and Berger sell food items from local vendors. They’ve had everything from Bullfrog Bagels to Dolcezza push-pops to Goûter tonics to baked goods from Sticky Fingers Bakery on the menu.
“This weekend we have fresh-squeezed lemonade from the Red Hook Lobster truck,” Berger says.
The boat even accommodates the river’s furrier friends, offering homemade dog treats to pups boating on the Potomac with their owners.
“And as the summer goes on, we’re seeing what sells, what doesn’t, what people want on the river, and we’re going to try to keep partnering with local businesses to try to feature different small local people every weekend,” Berger says. “Last weekend, when it was 85, 90 and sunny, we could not serve enough ice cream.”
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