Local food truck owners sue Baltimore over 300-foot buffer rule

Joann Calwell, Jolly Pig food truck owner talks about a new bill in the Generall Assembly that would streamline the way food trucks are licensed and inspected across the state. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

The owners of two local food trucks have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to sue the city of Baltimore over a law they say impedes their businesses.

Joey Vanoni and Nikki McGowans, the owners of the Pizza di Joey and Madame BBQ food trucks, respectively, filed a suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday morning alleging a city law that prohibits food trucks from operating within 300 feet of a business that sells the same product violates their constitutional rights.


"The 300-foot rule has only one, illegitimate purpose: to protect existing brick-and-mortar businesses from competition," the suit says.

A bill that would change the way food trucks are licensed in Maryland is likely to be tabled until the next General Assembly session, according to legislators

McGowans and Vanoni are represented by Gregory Reed and Robert Frommer of the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based firm that works on cases surrounding "economic liberty," property rights, free speech and school choice.


The case in Baltimore is part of the Institute for Justice's National Street Vending Initiative. The organization has tackled similar cases involving food trucks in other cities, including Chicago, where a case is ongoing, San Antonio and El Paso, Texas.

"El Paso and San Antonio both settled effectively by indicating that the law was indefensible," Reed said. "It's hard to say which cities will settle and which cities will fight it out."

Reed said Baltimore's 300-foot rule is one of the worst kinds of impediments to mobile vendors.

The food truck festival that's become a summer fixture in Charm City will return in June for a fifth celebration of mobile foods.

The 300-foot rule is part of a law the Baltimore City Council passed in 2014 that laid ground rules for food trucks operating in the city. The rule applies to all mobile vendors, not just food trucks, and violators can face $500 fines and the revocation of their mobile vendor's license.


Vanoni and McGowans allege in the suit that the rule has prohibited them from doing business in certain areas where they would like to operate, and both have had to rely more on private events for business rather than regularly working on city streets.

McGowans said the main reason she started a food truck was for the flexibility the business model offered, both in schedule and location. She generally avoids the city now — opting to operate in Howard County — but said she would operate within city limits if the law was repealed.

"I'm hoping that a law changes to make it so that we don't have to stick with the 300-foot rule," she said.

The suit alleges that the 300-foot rule creates "no-vending" zones around restaurants, and that there is no comparable restriction on brick-and-mortar businesses.

"It is stifling Baltimore's food truck industry," Reed said. "It's so hard to be successful as a food truck own because the 300-foot rule essentially shuts down wide swaths of the city."

Mat Geller, founder of the National Food Truck Association, said much of the controversy surrounding food truck regulation stems from the fact that the industry is relatively young.

"This is such a new industry so people have these weird things they believe to be fair or unfair," said Geller, who is also CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. "People don't know how to regulate it yet."

In California, where Geller is based, the laws affecting food trucks are more uniform because street vendors have existed there longer. He thinks it's a matter of time — combined with pressure from food truck operators and customers — before regulations in Baltimore and the surrounding counties are adjusted to support the industry.

His organization has challenged laws in 13 cities that obstruct food truck operation and "we always win," he said.

"I think one of the things that's really going to propel and help move this industry forward from a regulatory standpoint is that your food trucks are awesome," he said.

While the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association is not involved in the lawsuit, the association's president, Dave Pulford, said the group is in favor of repealing the 300-foot rule because it it restricts the operation of food trucks.

"I hope the city understands the whole reason for doing this," he said. "We tried working with the city when they were redoing the law and essentially they didn't want to talk about this at the time, so we got what we got."

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in an emailed statement the issue is "much ado about nothing."

"The Mayor and City Council have the authority to regulate public rights of way and the City frequently places limitations on what is and is not permitted in various locations," he wrote. "By way of example, the City prohibits commercial vehicles from being parked overnight on residential streets, we all know that certain parking locations are designated for handicapped only, and even other spaces are limited to certain governmental uses. We look forward to the legal system working through the facts of the case."

Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public polilcy for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the 300-foot rule, $1 in nominal damages, and attorneys' fees. 

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