Food Trucks

Food Trucks Still Under Attack from Regulators

Some cities have warmed to them, but protectionist policies still oppress.

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Food truck
Pamela Brick / Dreamstime.com

Chicago's food truck operators, hopelessly besieged by oppressive and inane city regulations that I've characterized as "some of the worst, if not the worst, in the entire country," are now hoping the state's highest court will take up their case.

A lawsuit, filed in 2012 by the Institute for Justice on behalf of client Laura Pekarik, owner of a cupcake truck, seeks the repeal of Chicago's idiotic proximity restrictions (which bar food trucks from selling food within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants and, hence, prohibit them from operating throughout the city's downtown area), and requiring trucks to be fitted with city-monitored GPS equipment. An Illinois appellate court upheld the rules last year.

"The Illinois Supreme Court should accept review of Laura's challenge to Chicago's anti-competitive 200-foot rule," says Robert Frommer, the IJ attorney representing Pekarik, in an email to me this week. "Competition is the American Way, which is why for decades Illinois courts have struck down laws meant to enrich deep-pocketed incumbents by throttling upstart newcomers. We hope that the Court will honor that long history by striking down the rule and making it clear that a business's success should turn on how good its food is, not on who it knows at City Hall."

I first wrote about battles over food truck regulations for Reason back in 2011. At the time, the key issue—repeated in cities across the country—was a combination of local brick-and-mortar restaurant owners wrongfully seeking local-government protection against competition from food trucks and local regulators obliging.

Much has changed for the better in the years since. For example, Washington, D.C., regulations, a key focus of my article, have improved dramatically.

Unfortunately, it's also true that much hasn't changed, and that regulations around the country are still a mixed bag.

While Chicago dropped its unconscionable ban on allowing food trucks to cook their food onboard—which meant food trucks had to store, cook, slice, and dice all their food off the truck, sometimes hours in advance of serving the food—a similar ban is somehow still in effect throughout Washington State. (Momentum was building just this week in Olympia to repeal that state ban.)

Elsewhere, the struggle continues. Tupelo, Mississippi, for example, is dragging its heels before it will even establish food truck regulations. While Tupelo lawmakers are taking their sweet time, the city also appears willing to allow brick-and-mortar restaurant owners to dictate terms. At least that's how the latest city council meeting on the issue makes it seem.

"The main thing that I'm interested in, and I think the food trucks want it, too, is to have some regulations about where they can be, things like that," said Leslie Nabors of Buffalo Wild Wings, in remarks reported by Tupelo's Daily Journal. "We don't want just any trucks coming into town and setting up shop."

Some of Nabors' brick-and-mortar neighbors agree.

"Whether it's a minimum distance food trucks can be from a restaurant, noise regulations over generators or if food trucks can park on city property—I don't know if this is what we want to do, but I've looked into several cities' food truck ordinances," said John Robbins, owner of Mugshots. "I just hope the city looks into that. I'm not against food trucks, but I don't want them to park on the same piece of property without any property tax or ordinances in place. We just want to make sure they jump through the same hoops we do."

They may as well say they're going to build a wall around downtown Tupelo and force food truck owners to pay for it.

Back in my 2011 piece, I urged exactly the opposite of this rent seeking chicanery. Wishing food trucks the pain of jumping through the same idiotic hoops restaurant owners must navigate is a needlessly crappy and adversarial argument. A better one?

"Instead of cracking down on the successful food trucks," I wrote all these years ago, regulators "should look to those businesses' success as a reason to cut the red tape that engulfs entrepreneurs who want to launch brick-and-mortar restaurants."

In other words, brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks should compete against each other (just like food trucks compete against each other and brick-and-mortar spaces compete against each other) and work together to reduce the regulatory burdens they each face, rather than trying to bury each other in red tape. And lawmakers should make and enforce laws and regulations that reflect this (and only this) fair approach. Sadly, for food trucks and their customers, these lessons are still being learned in places like Illinois, Mississippi, and Washington State.

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  1. What kind of city taxes do food trucks pay as compared with brick-and-mortar establishments? What sort of fees and “contributions”? How easily can they escape the tender embrace of costly regulation? Governments don’t exist to serve their citizens, citizens exist to serve their government. What’s in it for government to allow what consumers prefer over what’s in the government’s best interest?

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  2. “We hope that the Court will honor that long history by striking down the rule and making it clear that a business’s success should turn on how good its food is, not on who it knows at City Hall.”

    Now isn’t that just adorable?

  3. Chicago is tough on food trucks? Ha! Try this:

    “Unlike other cities, the trucks in Durango [Colorado] can’t operate on a public street or park, and they must find a private lot and request a six-month permit from the city to operate. When the six months is up, owners of truck-kitchens must leave for six months to allow the site to be vacant for half the year, Planning Manager Nicol Killian said.” – Durango Herald, 8-31-15

    1. I’d be fine with limiting food trucks to private property so long as they were otherwise unregulated.

      1. Exactly. Were food trucks left alone by the govt, they would be in effect subsidized by the government because using parking spaces enables them to avoid paying rent and utilities. This severely distorts the market. Parking spaces are intended for people who are going to and from local properties, not as places of business.

        I don’t support regulations that go beyond forcing them off public property.

  4. Food trucks are able to externalize a lot of their expenses whereas brick and mortar restaurants cannot. I’m all for the free market, but it isn’t the free market when one competitor is being subsidized and the other isn’t.

    It’s a complicated issue.

    1. Exactly what expenses do food trucks have that are being “externalized”?

      1. Rent, obviously.

        1. nothing stopping a store owner from paying off their property loans.

    2. Who’s doing anything to subsidize a food truck?

      1. Letting them operate on public property where other vendors are barred.

        1. A lack of a tax specific to food trucks is not a subsidy. They still pay income tax, licensing fees, as well as contribute to gas taxes since they pay for gas, unlike a brick and mortar restaurant.

        2. do food trucks not pay to park?

      2. You are, by paying taxes to maintain parking spaces.

        1. They are as well, through the taxes they still pay.

  5. A food truck operating on private property with the owner’s consent is a legitimate competitor.

    A food truck operating on public property is a freeloader.

    1. Wild ass assumption on my part: You are making a wild ass assumption that eating from a food truck on the side of the road is comparable to eating in a climate controlled, real seats and tables, waiter served restaurant.
      You are wrong.

      1. A food truck that misappropriates public property for private profit is a freeloader; the customer experience is irrelevant.

      2. So you’re going to replace his argument with a strawman and then declare the strawman to be wrong. Typical Reason argument tactic these days, I guess.

        Most brick & mortar restaurants are not what you describe, anyway. Most don’t have waiters and many don’t have seating, especially in high-rent areas like downtown Chicago. They still have to pay rent in order to have a point of sale and a kitchen, which food trucks avoid by operating from a subsidized public parking space.

    2. artie poo loves him some state, the gooder and harder the better.

      1. Are you a libertarian, or just another sheepish conservative masquerading as a libertarian?

        If you oppose the right-wing authoritarian line on abortion, treatment of gays, building a wall, the drug war, white nationalism, torture, military spending, voter suppression, and the like, your comment deserves at least some respect.

  6. After reading about this subject a while back, I started paying attention to where the food trucks around here are located. I have yet to see one at a public park or on the street in front of a restaurant. They’re typically in the parking lot of a strip mall or some other business with a big lot. I would find it hard to believe that the owners of these properties are not paying taxes on them, so that would seem to eliminate one of the complaints about food trucks I’ve read. And if running a food truck is such a sweet deal, why aren’t restaurant owners shutting their doors and getting trucks of their own? From what I can see, this whole brouhaha looks like nothing more than the time-honored American tradition of trying to get the government to make things tough on your business competition.

    1. No more phone calls, we have a winner.

  7. “We just want to make sure they jump through the same hoops we do.”

    Of course. Don’t work with them to eliminate the hoops.

    1. That always depresses me. So many people see someone wearing fewer chains, and never ask “Why am I wearing more chains? How about taking a few off?” Instead, they immediately start yelling “Put more chains on that guy!”

  8. Everyone always wants to force the same laws, taxes and regulations on others but they rarely question the laws, taxes and regulations themselves.

  9. When Will Regulators Stop Attacking Food Trucks?
    When Food Trucks are not operated by the individualistic kind of people who don’t vote for progressives.

    1. Food trucks seem to be operated by freeloaders who misappropriate public property. Food trucks located on private property with the property owner’s consent are legitimate competitors.

    2. What on earth makes you think food truck operators don’t vote for “progressives”?

      Plenty of leftists I know bitch about regulations and taxes, then go to the polls and vote for the politicians who created those policies, because “Republican = bigot”.

  10. For me, I really enjoy going to a restaurant and sitting down, enjoying a good meal because it is free from homeless people and car pollution. If people want “take-out” so be it, I am sure both can coincide together and it might even add more revenue to brick and mortar business (my significant other enjoys take out while I and the kids enjoy sitting down and eating ice cream).

  11. for decades Illinois courts have struck down laws meant to enrich deep-pocketed incumbents

    Is there some other place called Illinois than we haven’t heard of before?

    The Illinois I’ve been to is all about government backing whoever pays the most graft.

    -jcr

    1. All the more ridiculous as restaurateurs are rarely deep-pocketed or entrenched. Keep in mind many of those eeeeeeeeevil brick & mortar businesses are little take-out joints, family-owned bakeries, and such. Margins in food service are extremely low. The economy dips a bit and they go under.

      The food truck owners, on the other hand, can just put their truck in storage while the economy goes down, and come back out when things get better like the cockroaches they are.

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  13. oppressive and inane city regulations that I’ve characterized as “some of the worst, if not the worst, in the entire country,”

    How pathetic do you have to be to quote yourself? Not even a memorable, momentous, or prophetic quote, but a pedestrian phrase that many others have used before you.

    1. Your handle says it all….”emotional’ = moron.

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