St. Pete should embrace the food truck revolution

Scott Allbright Clerk, The Institute for Justice
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All around the country, people are being exposed to a culinary revolution: food trucks. Movable gourmet kitchens are bringing all sorts of new and tasty options to satisfied customers. And yet, as Matt Yglesias recently explained at Slate.com, “City governments across the country are threatening to kill the food truck revolution with dumb regulations.”

Consider St. Petersburg, where a food truck fight is brewing between those who want to embrace the food truck trend and those who want to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from honest competition.

Today, St. Petersburg’s councilmembers will have two choices: They can take a big step towards joining that revolution or they can let the pressure of special interests influence their decision and effectively ban food trucks from the downtown.

Councilmembers will get a chance to hear from the Tampa Bay Mobile Food Vending Alliance about what thousands of Floridians already know: Food trucks are good for their cities.

Back in December, councilmembers sang the praises of food trucks. Councilman Jeff Danner said that he thought the trucks would foster economic development. Councilman Karl Nurse said, “I think that we should just find a way to say, ‘yes.’” Things were looking good for food trucks.

But that changed once brick-and-mortar restaurants started raising concerns about competition. While even a 100-foot buffer around restaurants is anti-competitive, Councilman Danner suggested a proposal to ban food trucks within 500 feet from restaurants was insufficient but “a good place to start.” Councilman Jim Kennedy would “prohibit food trucks in the entire downtown area” and “have as big of a buffer from brick-and-mortar restaurants even outside of the downtown area.” Mr. Kennedy and Councilman Charlie Gerdes even had the audacity to suggest that the city should substantially raise taxes on food trucks — a growing sector of the economy.

Thankfully, Councilwoman Leslie Curran has seen the situation clearly from the beginning. In December, she said that she “really ha[d]n’t heard from anyone who’s against [food trucks].” She admonished the council to be “open-minded” and said that needlessly increasing fees and taxes on food trucks simply because they were not brick-and-mortar restaurants was “not the way this city really wants to do business.” Councilman Wengay Newton also seemed to be sympathetic to the plight of the food trucks.

But they all must understand that protecting restaurants from competition is not a legitimate use of government power. Food truck entrepreneurs, like all lawful businesses, have a constitutional right to pursue the occupation of their choice free from arbitrary or discriminatory regulations.

Severely restricting food trucks unfairly discriminates against these culinary concocters because it means the government is determining winners and losers — and that is not how America is supposed to work. The people of St. Petersburg should be able to make their food choices based on their wallets, noses and tongues. The city council should not be able to limit those choices merely because the chamber of commerce does not want its brick-and-mortar members to have to compete.

The recipe for making St. Petersburg’s economy even healthier includes increasing the economic freedom of food trucks and consumers — and saying no to politically connected insiders who demand that the government protect them from honest competition.

The reason for the rise of food trucks is obvious to anyone who has ever sampled something from one of their eclectic menus. And on Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council has the opportunity to follow Tampa and other cities around Florida and embrace the food truck trend.

Scott Allbright is a clerk for the Institute for Justice Florida Chapter. Scott is a Massachusetts native in the third year of a four-year joint JD/MBA program at the University of Miami, where he is president of the student Federalist Society chapter.