Baltimore may be the Charm City, but there is nothing charming about its treatment of the city's fledging food truck fleet. To protect existing brick-and-mortar businesses from competition, the city recently cracked down on food truck owners who want nothing more than to earn an honest living by selling delicious food to hungry Baltimoreans.
The crackdown began two weeks ago, when a city bureaucrat began aggressive enforcement of a city law that restrains food trucks from competing with brick-and-mortar restaurants by requiring them to stay 300 feet — the length of a football field — away from any retail establishment that sells similar food. When the owner of one café took a measurement and discovered a food truck encroaching within 280 feet of her turf, she complained to the city's enforcement bureau, which then swung into action.
Alvin Gillard, chairman of the city's Street Vendor Board, personally told Irene Smith, owner of the Souper Freak truck, that she was in violation of the 300-feet restriction. When she offered to move, Mr. Gillard then told her and another nearby truck that the real problem was that the city was now requiring they obtain a new permit, in addition to the one they already possessed, and that such a permit could not be approved until June or perhaps as late as August. In other words, the trucks would have to stop operating until then.
Mr. Gillard seems to have acknowledged that the truck owners couldn't have known they needed the permit, since the city solicitor had only recently determined it was required, and the Street Vendor Board was, in his words, "still struggling with whether [it] had to bring these folks under compliance."
Apparently, a complaint from a restaurant put an end to that struggle, since it precipitated Mr. Gillard's move to try to shut down the trucks. As he explained, the city believes it must "ensure that existing retail operations are not unfairly affected by [the food trucks'] presence."
In other words, the city believes that its job is to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition from the upstart food trucks. Does the city really have that little faith in the ability of its existing restaurants — which, unlike food trucks, can offer large menus, seating, a climate-controlled dining room, and even wait staff — to compete with food trucks? Do restaurant owners who back restrictions on food trucks have so little faith in their own businesses that they need to rely on bureaucrats to keep food trucks at bay?
Apparently — and sadly — the answer is yes.
But protecting brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition isn't just wrong; it's also unconstitutional. All Americans have the right to earn an honest living, free from arbitrary and protectionist regulations imposed by government. Food truck owners shouldn't be punished just because they have decided to bring the food to the customer, rather than vice versa.
Unfortunately, Baltimore and other cities across the country disagree. Indeed, food trucks and other mobile vendors have come under attack nationwide from protectionist restrictions. For example, Sacramento has made vast areas of its city a "no vending zone." Restrictions against mobile food vending in downtown areas — which, of course, are where lots of customers can be found during lunch hour — are increasingly common across the country. Pittsburgh bans vendors from operating within 500 feet of other restaurants. Until El Paso repealed it in response to a lawsuit filed by our organization, that Texas city had a restriction against vendors operating within 1,000 feet of restaurants (more than three football fields away).
Back in Baltimore, the scuffle appears to have settled down after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called a temporary truce. The food trucks will be allowed to operate until their applications for additional licenses can be considered at an upcoming hearing.
But don't be fooled by this temporary reprieve. The 300-feet restriction and new licensing requirements remain in place, and the Street Vendor Board has shown that it is willing to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants by making life difficult for entrepreneurs who are taking their food to the streets. For Baltimoreans who care about economic liberty — as well as being able to grab a tasty lunch on the go — now is the time to join the battle to save the food trucks.
Larry Salzman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Bert Gall (email@example.com) are attorneys at the Institute for Justice, whose National Street Vending Initiative fights for the right of street vendors to operate.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun