Traverse City, Michigan is Slamming the Brakes on Food Trucks

Food trucks are kicking into overdrive across the country. In cities like Austin and Los Angeles, street food vendors are pleasing customers with a variety of creative dishes. Food trucks are also providing economic opportunities for thousands of small business owners.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) of Traverse City didn’t get the memo. After voting against a proposal that would have allowed food trucks downtown, the DDA is now taking two months to consider where (if anywhere) food trucks could be free to sell. Right now, it’s illegal for a food truck to park for more than 10 minutes on a public street or sidewalk and costs $100 a day for a mobile entrepreneur to do business downtown. 

The vote came after many owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants complained that “it’s not fair” that food trucks can compete with their businesses. These owners support keeping street food entrepreneurs far away from their restaurants either through a proximity ban or by outright banning them from Traverse City altogether.

But as the Institute for Justice has shown in its recent report, Seven Myths and Realities about Food Trucks, food trucks can increase the number of customers to nearby restaurants by attracting more foot traffic. In addition, while food trucks do have lower overhead, they also have fewer amenities—they can’t provide a place to sit or protection from the heat, cold, rain, or snow. Food trucks don’t enjoy an unfair advantage over restaurants. Proximity bans are based around total fallacies.

Not only are these restrictions anticompetitive, they’re unconstitutional. In Craigmiles v. Giles, the Institute for Justice challenged a government-backed cartel that banned the unlicensed sale of caskets. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Michigan) unanimously held “that protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate government enterprise.” That includes “protecting” brick-and-mortar restaurants from the competition of street vendors.

Indeed, cities that pass unconstitutional legislation that infringes on the economic liberty of mobile food entrepreneurs could face lawsuits. The Institute for Justice is currently suing Chicago for mandating that food trucks must stay at least 200 feet away from brick-and-mortar restaurants. Back in January 2011, IJ sued El Paso, Tex., after it passed a severe proximity ban that “made it illegal for mobile food vendors to operate within 1,000-feet of any restaurant, convenience store or grocer.” But in a win for economic liberty, city officials later repealed El Paso’s restrictive proximity ban in response to the Institute’s lawsuit.

So far, there is only one permitted food truck, Roaming Harvest, owned by Simon Joseph, in Traverse City. Simon has been working to reform Traverse City’s food truck laws, launching TC Street Food “to support the local mobile food scene in Traverse City” and make it “even more of a ‘foodie’ town.” A petition on Change.org supporting reforms has gathered around 700 signatures.

While quite a few restaurant owners oppose food trucks, other businesses are more supportive. The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce surveyed 600 of its members to see if they supported freeing the food trucks. The results? “More than 80% of the responses were very positive,” said the Chamber’s president, Dough Luciani.

Those Chamber members definitely have good reasons to support street food freedom. As the Institute for Justice has previously reported, food trucks don’t destroy jobs—they create new jobs. Mobile cuisine has reduced office vacancies and boosted demand for commissaries, commercial lots, construction supplies companies and hardware stores.

Traverse City should seize this opportunity to foster a thriving street food industry and protect vendors’ constitutional rights.

-- Nick Sibilla

Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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