Smiling Faces, Frowning Foodies

For many beachgoers, quick access to affordable food is the difference between a wonderful vacation and a grumpy day in the sand. Last summer, Myrtle Beach city officials began exploring ways to allow food trucks to provide such convenient, delicious options and ultimately approved a food truck pilot program in late September. The pilot program ostensibly allows a limited number of food trucks to operate in designated areas on private property or on city property specifically approved for vendors.

There’s just one minor catch: As of Wednesday, no trucks have successfully signed up for it. It’s not for lack of interest—already, several truck owners have tried and failed to complete the required application for a permit. As is often the case in politics, the devil is in the details.

The ordinance authorizing the pilot program requires all food trucks that want to operate in Myrtle Beach be connected to a commercial kitchen within the city limits. City officials claim this restriction is meant to shore up “existing city business first.” Existing food trucks looking to offer service in Myrtle Beach are already connected to a kitchen, as required by South Carolina state law. But none of those kitchens are within Myrtle Beach because, according to local food truck owners, there are no commercial kitchens within the city limits.

This absurdist example of economic protectionism might be funny if it weren’t hurting the local economy. But the government handout for non-existent commercial kitchens is not the only way the food truck ordinance seeks to prop up politically connected companies. City law also requires food truck vendors to operate at least 500 feet away from other food service entrances, unless given an affidavit by the business saying otherwise. Myrtle Beach’s waterfront, like other commercial beaches, is lined with bars and restaurants. So even if a vendor could somehow acquire a currently impossible-to-obtain permit, the truck would be severely limited in where it could operate—making it difficult for beachgoers to buy their delicious products and benefit the city’s economy.

Unfortunately, Myrtle Beach is not the only waterfront tourist town to undermine its local food scene with onerous regulations designed to protect politically favored businesses. The Institute for Justice (IJ) filed lawsuits in ChicagoBaltimore and Louisville to overturn similar anti-vending laws as part of its National Street Vending Initiative. The initiative aims to protect the rights of food truck owners and other street vendors across the country. IJ lawsuits on behalf of food trucks in Texas have already lead to the repeal of protectionist laws in San Antonio and El Paso  that banned food trucks from operating near restaurants or convenience stores.

Myrtle Beach officials should promote a more vibrant local food scene by allowing food trucks to compete freely throughout the city. A better approach to food trucks would welcome existing vendors while encouraging new jobs and economic growth.

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