Last week, a restaurant owner in Seymour, Indiana, told her local paper that the city should restrict access to food trucks as a way to bolster business at her brick-and-mortar restaurant. She's taken issue with a particular food truck owned by a national chicken chain.
"The days they were in town, we did have a considerable loss, and they had a line all day," Lori Keithley, owner of Brewskie's Downtown in Seymour, told local newspaper The Tribune. She claims Brewskie's "can't compete with Chick-fil-A." So she wants the city to force food trucks operating in the city—including the Chick-fil-A truck, which went through the same licensing, permitting, and inspection process as other food trucks operating in the city—out of the downtown area.
"What is the point of having them in downtown Seymour when we have restaurants here that are trying to grow and strive to make downtown better?" she asked.
The point? Well, it's competition and choice. But some who can't or won't compete throw up their hands and ask the government to limit choice by stifling competition. That's protectionism.
Protectionism isn't a Seymour-only problem. Many cities and towns across the country are still treating food truck owners and operators like unwelcome, invading hordes.
For example, Bay City, Michigan, officials are considering an ordinance that would impose new fees and rules for food trucks operating in the city. Some of these changes seem eminently fair—including that trucks operating in the city obtain a license from the city and show proof of insurance before they may operate.
But others are clearly intended to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants in the city at the expense of food trucks. For example, the Bay City ordinance would impose dreaded Chicago-style radius restrictions, mandating that food trucks vend at least 150 feet from brick-and-mortar restaurants. The ordinance would also require businesses that allow food trucks to vend on their private property (e.g., a brewery) "to obtain approval before allowing food trucks onto their property." There's also a provision in the ordinance that prohibits trucks from making "excessive" noise or using flashing or blinking lights and another that requires truck operators to ban anyone from eating within 10 feet of their truck.
Some cities that are moving theoretically to lift bans on food trucks are merely creating onerous new conditions for their operation.
In North Royalton, Ohio, officials are trying to figure out how to allow a food truck to operate in the city. A brewery owner there wants to open up a truck so he can serve food along with his beer. Presently, the city only allows food trucks to operate for "special events." The city council appears to have held multiple hearings on the matter already and has scheduled others for… January.
What's the holdup? Apparently, it'll take months for the city council to gather information on ways to unfairly protect brick-and-mortar restaurant owners in North Royalton from competition from one food truck.
"We are still working on finding a balance between food truck operators and local restaurants," North Royalton council member Paul Marnecheck told Cleveland.com last month.
And in Statesboro, Ga. officials say they may allow food trucks to operate regularly in the city for the first time. But they're pushing for a minimum 200-foot radius restriction—though that could double if a food truck also offers any temporary seating.
Elsewhere, Nederland, Texas, is extending a pilot program that allows food trucks. Great? Not great. The pilot program's vexing requirements mean food trucks may only operate as part of an existing brick-and-mortar business's "special event" and may only do so up to once each month.
Why are cities and towns still cracking down on food trucks in this fashion? Though there are no good reasons, there are reasons. And particularly today, during the pandemic and economic downturn, there are reasons for those reasons.
Chief among them appears to be the dire outlook for many brick-and-mortar restaurants. Most are struggling. Many won't survive. Local governments are concerned that restaurant closures will decimate their downtowns. The ripple effect those closures will have on the real estate market is only beginning to be felt. Empty storefronts on Main Street, in turn, means dire times are coming for many commercial property owners and developers. All that, in turn, will likely mean local governments will collect far fewer tax dollars.
As the N.Y. Times noted this week, this cascading chain of events "imperils not only individual shops and restaurants, but also the commercial landlords they pay rent to, and the state and local governments relying on their tax dollars."
But rather than making life easier for brick-and-mortar restaurants—say, by lifting barriers to entry or by making it easier and less costly for restaurants to operate—many cities and towns have decided instead to make life harder for food trucks.
Thankfully, some cities are bucking the trend. Louisville's city council, for example, recently lifted a ban on food-truck lots. The first lot will be located next to a new cidery—which highlights one of the many ways that food trucks can help "grow the pie" by providing symbiotic opportunities for businesses in and around places where food trucks congregate.
Bergenfield, New Jersey, recently lifted its 40-year ban on new food trucks. The sole mobile food vendor in Bergenfield, who'd operated a hot dog cart for forty years until he retired a year ago, had been grandfathered in under the ban. Now the borough will sell up to twenty licenses to new mobile vendors.
Food trucks are built for right now. They cost less to operate than brick-and-mortar restaurants. They offer competitive prices. Most food trucks don't offer indoor dining. They don't employ waitstaff. They don't require customers to queue up indoors. Their small footprint means they're staffed by skeleton crews. Most don't serve alcohol. In other words, the things that make food trucks less like brick-and-mortar restaurants are also the very things that make them a seemingly safer dining choice during this pandemic.
Attempting to save brick-and-mortar restaurants by cracking down on food trucks is a fool's errand. Imposing a host of pointless and burdensome rules on food-truck entrepreneurs has real downsides. The rules stifle entrepreneurship, dampen the tax base, protect businesses that don't warrant any such protection, and trample on consumer choice.
Worse still, perhaps, is that they crush innovation. Perhaps that's why—even as America's cities and towns fret over whether and how to allow a Chick-fil-A food truck—China's rolling out driverless KFC food trucks.