The Crescent City Eases Up on Food Trucks

After over a year of debate, legislative re-writes, and amendments to amendments, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in favor of new food truck regulations.

On the whole, New Orleans’s new food truck laws are a step in the right direction, but there are still problematic sections. First, the good. Food trucks can now stay in one location for up to four hours, a much needed improvement over the previous limit of just 45 minutes. In addition, the new ordinance creates 75 new food truck permits, almost doubling the Crescent City’s mobile cuisine presence. But these permits will only last a year and “shall not be renewable,” unless the city council later changes the law.

While mobile vendors are still banned from the French Quarter and most of the Central Business District, they gained access to the biomedical district and neighborhoods zoned for residential use, “as long as they sell food only in front of stores, bars or other buildings with nonresidential uses.”

Councilmembers also considered proposing an amendment that would have invaded vendors’ privacy by mandating GPS tracking devices on food trucks. Fortunately, the city council decided against treating street food like felons and abandoned the amendment, thanks in part to efforts by the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition. Unfortunately, mobile cuisine GPS trackers are still mandated in cities like Chicago.

Finally and significantly, this ordinance lowers the Crescent City’s proximity ban. Before, food trucks were banned from operating within 600 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but now that limit has dropped to 200 feet. Council President and bill sponsor Stacy Head originally wanted to reduce the ban to 50 feet.

But as Head and the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition point out, any proximity ban is unconstitutional, since their only rationale is to “protect” established businesses from competition. According to coalition attorney, Andrew Legrand, “economic protection is not a legitimate government purpose.

In fact, the Institute for Justice recently won a case that rejected blatant protectionism in Louisiana. The monks of Saint Joseph Abbey wanted to sell handmade caskets, but were banned from doing so. So with IJ’s help, they challenged a Louisiana state law mandating that only government-licensed funeral directors could sell caskets. Affirming a lower court’s ruling, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi) found this regulation served no “rational basis” and denounced this restriction as “economic protection of the rulemakers’ pockets” that served as a “naked transfer of wealth.” While not as severe as before, New Orleans’ proximity ban should meet a similar fate.

But other provisions clamp food trucks. Permit fees have doubled to $600 a year. Bizarrely, the city council spent the most time during the vote debating a completely new bathroom regulation. Mobile cuisine entrepreneurs are now required to obtain written documentation of access to a commercial or public bathroom within 300 feet of a vending spot, regardless of how long a food truck plans to stay there. But this new restriction is waived if there are no bathrooms available in sections of the city vendors can sell in.

Alex del Castillo, owner of Taceaux Loceaux, criticized the restroom restriction as unnecessary, pointing out, “I managed not to soil myself” while working in his truck: “Why is it suddenly important now? What are you fixing?” Plus as Rachel Billow, food truck owner and president of the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, notes, there “haven’t been any issues thus far with there not being a restroom requirement.

While the city council should be commended for reform and Council President Head applauded for her leadership on this issue, there is still room for improvement. Scrapping the city’s unconstitutional proximity ban completely, lifting the permit cap entirely, and repealing the unnecessary restroom requirement would free the food trucks and foster more dining options for consumers.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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