Food Trucks

Food Truck Operators Are Still Fighting an Uphill Battle Against Protectionism

Brick-and-mortar restaurants around the country still want lawmakers to make life harder for food trucks.

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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.

NEXT: Phoenix Will Pay $3 Million Settlement After Police Shot a Man During a Noise Complaint. The Officers Are Still Employed.

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  2. Love food truck.

    Good reminder that capitalism is not without its down sides. It is not always about making a better product. Sometimes its about regulating you competition.

    1. “Good reminder that capitalism is not without its down sides. It is not always about making a better product. Sometimes its about regulating you competition…”

      You seem confused regarding “capitalism”.

      1. He’s very dumb.

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        1. I envision brick-and-mortar restaurant owners investing in food trucks which they will park in front of their establishments in order to displace competing trucks. Get your hot stuff here or there…Buy at Joe’s truck, eat at Joe’s restaurant, and get a beer at the restaurant.

    2. “capitalism is not without its down sides. It is not always about making a better product. Sometimes its about regulating you competition.

      Wut?

  3. Fuck Lori Keithley. Hey, bitch, why not get the city council to require people to eat at your precious establishment at least once a week? And during any government shut-down, require people to pay you for meals not served?

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  5. Shit soon democrats won’t let you have either. You’ll be lucky to find enough food unless you hunt and fish for yourself. We are entering dark times.

    1. What? Kill poor wild animals and fish? They have as much right to live as you do, and maybe more, since they aren’t destroying the environment.

      (Commenting for a Progressive who’s out sick with angst today)

      1. Also out are any farming techniques that will produce enough food to feed more than the people involved in growing it.

        Your only moral/legal choice is to starve to death.

        1. In North Korea, the food is supposedly provided by the government; it isn’t.
          Growing your own food is illegal, as is buying it on the black market.
          The writer of one of the NK books on the shelves stated simply that ‘starvation is the only legal possibility’.

  6. The SF bay area got socked with a double-down lockdown starting tomorrow night, including outdoor dining (What? Yep.):

    “A wide swath of the San Francisco Bay area is imposing stay-at-home rules through Christmas and New Year’s Day, moving ahead of California’s threshold for lockdowns as the region seeks to prevent hospitals from becoming overrun by Covid-19 cases.
    Five counties — encompassing areas including San Francisco, Oakland and much of Silicon Valley — along with the City of Berkeley plan to adopt measures including shutting down personal care services, outdoor restaurant operations and entertainment centers, county health officers said at a press briefing Friday. The rules will be effective starting Dec. 6 and last until Jan. 4…”
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-04/san-francisco-bay-area-adopts-lockdown-measures-to-quell-virus

    I wonder if food trucks might benefit, since it’s ‘take out’ by any measure.
    But given the level of authoritarianism here abouts, there will probably be cops with tape measures…

  7. Forget tape measures. Police are being issued 6 foot poles. If they can stand next to your friend, and hit you with the pole, you are too close.

  8. It’s called enterprise and competition. If the food truck has to go through the same permit and licensing procedure, they have just as much right to business as a “brick and mortar” restaurant.

    Stay at home stay safe and also follow the Coronavirus Disease (COVID 19) Guidelines according to WHO.

    1. If the food truck has to go through the same permit and licensing procedure, they have just as much right to business as a “brick and mortar” restaurant.

      See, that’s the thing, they don’t and/or it is easier for them to circumvent that.

      1. Brick and mortar restaurants, depending on the location/jurisdiction, are/can be required to provide parking, handicapped spaces, restrooms, training and wages, property taxes, utility fees, etc., etc., etc.

        I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be food trucks, but the idea that “Once food trucks and sit down dining are equal before the law, the market will take care of the rest.” demonstrates a lot of, potentially willfull, ignorance of the law.

  9. “… 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.”

    At least two of our local restaurants had their own food trucks out within a couple of weeks of the “shut-down.” With the restaurants now open again, at reduced capacity, their food trucks are still out there, and, one must assume, making money.

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  11. A columnist in a libertarian magazine opines that citied demanding a license and proof of insurance to operate a food truck is “eminently fair.” For one, that’s a tacky-elegant, i.e. snooty use of eminently where clearly would have been fine. Second, what business does the State have issuing licenses for food operation? Maybe you or your host should get one before preparing your next Thanksgiving meal?

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  13. 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”.

    If I were trying to deliver a pathogen, foodborne or otherwise, to as many people as possible, the mobile delivery truck is obviously the superior choice to the voluntary infection center.

  14. I know this article is written in a fairly negative light when it comes to food trucks, but I read it as pretty positive actually.

    I mean, most of the restrictions referenced aren’t really bad. Heck, even Linneken admits it with the statement: “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.”

    And yes, there are some areas that don’t allow for trucks, but it reads like the momentum is changing on that. Overall, it reads that food trucks are doing well and run into local hurdles that all businesses run into.

    In the end, I guess I’m not saying there isn’t more to do, but when the trend seems to be more in the positive, why write a negatively framed article? I’m just tired of the constant anger and outrage porn that is news and analysis these days.

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