Food Truck Freedom Advances in Virginia

In March 2013, Wolf Antoni, owner of the Bratwurst King food truck that frequents Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, Va., was slapped with a fine totaling almost half of his daily earnings. Why? Until this summer, food trucks were not allowed to operate on state-maintained roads. At the time, Antoni wondered, “We’re all small businesses. We pay taxes and everything else. Why would you hinder a small business from prospering?”

Antoni and other food truck operators in Virginia can now breathe a sigh of relief. On Monday, May 25, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a billallowing food trucks to sell on state-maintained roads, paving the way for food trucks to sell their brats, barbecue, and baked goods across Virginia. “The idea that in Virginia on VDOT roads you were not allowed to have these food trucks … I just couldn’t understand why. It made absolutely no sense to me,” McAuliffe said at the bill signing ceremony in Tysons.

By removing a blockade to mobile vending in Virginia, the law allows food truck operators to earn an honest living while serving a diverse array of food to an increasingly urbanizing state. Che Ruddell-Tabisola, director of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia Food Truck Association, said that this step toward food-truck freedom was “a landmark event in the history of American street vending.”

Gov. McAuliffe gives food trucks a helping hand. (Photo credit: WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

Gov. McAuliffe gives food trucks a helping hand. (Photo credit: WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

The law, which goes into effect on July 1, directs localities to create regulations allowing food trucks to apply for operating permits. In areas like Tysons Corner, whose local governments already allow food trucks to operate, food trucks can start vending as soon as the law takes effect. Food trucks in other parts of Virginia will have to wait because the new legislation only changes state law and the commonwealth consists of a patchwork of local food truck laws, many of which are needlessly oppressive.

A 2008 Arlington County ordinance required food trucks to move every hour to avoid being fined by police. This rule prevented trucks from serving office workers during the entire afternoon lunch period, depriving them of much-needed sales revenue and customers of much-demanded food-truck fare.

The rule was rarely enforced until brick-and-mortar restaurants, presumably fearing competition from their mobile competitors, complained to police, who responded by issuing court summonses and tickets.

Among those who fell victim to the law were Anna Shil and her truck, Seoul Food. After obeying the law and moving her truck after an hour of vending, she was still cited by the police—for not moving far enough. The officer charged her with a class 1 misdemeanor—the same as a DUI, reckless driving, and assault—and threatened her with a $2,500 fine and a year in jail. Anna contacted the Institute for Justice who, together with a DC law firm, helped her resolve her charges. Thankfully, the prosecution dropped the case because the law was likely unconstitutionally vague, failing to specify how far trucks had to travel to comply with the law.

After Anna’s case was dropped, IJ and local food truck entrepreneur-activists called for a change in Arlington’s vending laws. In 2013, the county passed a new ordinance allowing trucks to vend for two hours instead of one. Before the one- and two-hour regulations were imposed, Arlington had an even more unsavory climate for food trucks, who couldn’t park for more than five minutes.

Although Virginia has made strides towards food-truck freedom, some still want to take food trucks off the streets. Some owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants argue that food trucks pose unfair competition, and have lobbied cities from coast to coast to enact regulations on where trucks can operate based on the restaurant’s location—an unconstitutional restriction on these vendors’ right to earn an honest living.

Advocates for food trucks have more ground to cover, since dozens of large American cities still have burdensome rules on the books. But the recent legislation in Virginia is evidence that mobile entrepreneurs are making progress toward removing unfair regulations.

Advocates are hopeful. According to Ruddell-Tabisola, “[T]he legislators here, they get it. They know and understand that our food trucks contribute to the local economy and community—and that’s the message we hope other states can begin to understand.”

— Joseph Kessler

Joseph Kessler is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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