Food Policy

Terrible Restrictions on Food Trucks Are Still a Thing

Atlanta, Sioux Center, and too many other cities and towns are still treating food trucks like second-class businesses.


More than halfway through 2022, many cities and towns across America—big and small—are somehow still pretending that food trucks are some newfangled nuisances that must be regulated out of existence.

As many people (me definitely included) have explained over the past decade, opponents of food trucks typically advocate in favor of a host of nefarious restrictions on the roving restaurants, including protectionist limits on where they may sell food (often with an eye toward "protecting" brick-and-mortar restaurants), where they may cook that food (some cities don't allow trucks to prepare food fresh on the truck), and what days and times they may operate.

While countless cities and towns have reduced or eliminated these and other restrictions, many pointless barriers remain. 

"Just to operate around metro Atlanta today, [gyro truck owner Ali] Moradi has to have seven county permits and 13 city business licenses—which add up to about $3,700 in annual fees, plus the related paperwork," Atlanta magazine reported last month in a piece on the "red tape" and "strict municipal regulations" that encumber Atlanta-area food trucks. "It's a lot to keep track of. Costs and red tape—plus strict municipal regulations about where food trucks can do their business—have conspired to stifle the growth of the industry in the Atlanta area, keeping trucks at the fringes of the dining scene."

While Atlanta reports the rules are improving—a bill now on the governor's desk would help reduce the permitting barriers—regulations there still stink. And they're even worse and worsening in some parts of the country.

Lawmakers in Seabrook, New Hampshire, for example, voted earlier this year to prohibit food trucks and carts that had been operating at the town's beach this summer. Officials cited a couple tangible issues arising from trucks and carts in previous years—including overflowing trash bins. But rather than, say, raise the town's low permit fees to allow for better or more frequent garbage disposal, the town just banned the trucks altogether.

In Sioux Center, Iowa, the Sioux Center News reported this week, the city council is considering adopting new food truck regulations. While some of the proposed rules are reasonable and comparable to those found elsewhere around the country, a few others suggest the city wants to prohibit or severely curtail food trucks. Along those lines, the ordinance would require food trucks to specify which foods they'll sell—something not required of brick-and-mortar restaurants; limits their operating hours; and requires them to stay at least 100 feet away from any brick-and-mortar restaurant in the city.

"Prohibiting food vendors is not our intent," city manager Scott Wynja said. His comments were echoed by Mayor David Krahling, who insists the "proposed ordinance is not intended to be punitive."

The proposed ordinance suggests exactly the opposite is true.

In Saranac Lake, New York, local lawmakers are considering adopting new rules to regulate food trucks, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported this week, in response to requests from food truck owners.

But comments from Saranac Lake officials suggest—like in Sioux Center—any rules the village might adopt would likely ensure those food trucks owners ply their cuisines elsewhere. One councilor (or trustee, as they're known) suggests Saranac Lake should prohibit food trucks to help struggling brick-and-mortar restaurants. Another trustee suggested the group first "check with local restaurants" before approving any measure. Perhaps by coincidence, the Daily Enterprise reports that a third trustee owns a local restaurant.

Though Atlanta, Sioux Center, Seabrook, Saranac Lake, and many other cities and towns still target food trucks, others recognize the value food trucks bring to communities and are moving to facilitate their growth. Officials in Manassas, Virginia, are moving to codify an existing policy that allows food trucks to park at local breweries and distilleries. "The proposed adjustment is to clarify code to clearly enable food trucks for these uses," reads a city staff memorandum on the matter, reports Inside NOVA. But for every Manassas, there's a New Jersey. That state's bizarre prohibition on allowing any food trucks to park at (or even to "'collaborate or coordinate' with") local breweries continues apace

In a 2014 column, I noted that the regulatory climate for food trucks appeared to have improved markedly around the country. By almost any measure, it has done just that. But I've also noted, as here, that many cities and towns whose restaurant industries have been decimated by Covid, high food prices, and an economic slump have tried to help brick-and-mortar restaurants by making life harder for food trucks—rather than removing barriers and hurdles for both brick-and-mortar and mobile restaurants. Those cities and towns can and should do better.