In America, there are currently two great food truck races. The first is a product of reality television and the second is a product of, well, reality. If you tune into the Food Network this Sunday night, you can watch the season debut of the first race — called, you guessed it, “The Great Food Truck Race.” After competing in Los Angeles to see who can make the most money by serving the highest quality food to hungry customers, the winning food-truck teams will move on to another city to continue the competition.
But if the teams were really savvy, they would abandon the show, stay in Los Angeles and try to start their food-truck businesses in the city that has already won the second great food truck race. That race — the only one that matters — is the race between cities to enact laws that allow their food trucks, and the entrepreneurs that run them, to thrive.
Indeed, the city of Los Angeles has crafted the most food-truck friendly laws in the country. Most significantly, Los Angeles does not have laws barring food trucks from operating in the same areas that brick-and-mortar restaurants do. This is because it has generally eschewed the notion that restaurants need laws to “protect” them from food trucks. Unfortunately, most other major cities have embraced that wrong-headed idea and have severely stunted the growth of their food-truck industries.
Here in California, for example, San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland have enacted laws that keep food trucks away from popular commercial areas where customers want them to be. Similar laws exist in Philadelphia, San Antonio and Denver. In San Francisco, a food truck can only vend in a particular location if the restaurants within 300 feet of that location allow it. Sacramento is currently considering an ordinance that will create a 200-foot buffer zone between food trucks and restaurants. Chicago just passed a similar ordinance, which threatens to destroy its burgeoning food-truck industry by making most of downtown off limits. Even larger buffer zones exist in cities like New Orleans (600 feet) and Pittsburgh (500 feet).
These kinds of laws have nothing to do with protecting public health and safety and everything to do with trying to insulate restaurants from competition by making it difficult for food trucks to find profitable locations from which to operate. The thinking behind these laws is that food trucks have an “unfair” advantage over restaurants, and thus must be more severely regulated.
Restaurants have a host of advantages over food trucks: bigger kitchens, more storage for inventory, a dining area, air-conditioning, protection from the elements and the business good will that comes from having a stable location. Yes, restaurants have to pay sales tax and submit to health inspections — but so do food trucks.
Restaurants do not need protection from a food truck. Thanks to the educational efforts of groups like the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, most of Los Angeles’ leaders have understood this fact. And, just as importantly, they have seemed to understand that it is not the proper role of government to try to provide that protection. Fortunately, courts have not been shy about reining in city leaders on those occasions when they have tried to enforce protectionist restrictions against food trucks and other mobile vendors.
Because it has largely turned its back on protectionism, Los Angeles has the best regulatory environment for food trucks in the country. The city’s approximately 800 food trucks continue to create thousands of jobs, serve millions of satisfied customers and provide a competitive spark that ensures L.A.’s culinary scene remains at the cutting edge. Meanwhile, a relative handful of food trucks struggle to survive in the hostile, protectionist regulatory environments of cities like Sacramento and New Orleans.
That said, Los Angeles is not perfect — for example, certain councilmembers continue to seek to protect favored interests through “special” anti-food truck regulations disguised as commercial vehicle regulations limited to the councilmembers’ districts. In addition to rejecting this kind of stealth protectionism, city leaders should look for ways to reduce the overall regulatory burden on food trucks while still protecting public health and safety. And although the city welcomes food trucks, its regulations for sidewalk vendors are some of the worst in the country. That needs to change.
But those issues, although pressing, can wait until next week. On Sunday, Angelenos should tune into “The Great Food Truck Race” and celebrate the fact that they live in the best food-truck city in America.
Bert Gall is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. Jeffrey Dermer is Managing Partner of Dermer Behrendt and General Counsel for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.