Mobile Vending Hits Roadblocks in Rhode Island

Opportunities for mobile food entrepreneurs seem to be on the decline in Rhode Island. Although the Ocean State has minimal licensing requirements for food trucks and carts, a number of cities are trying to muscle vendors out.

The city of Cranston recently added a slew of new regulations to what was already one of the nation’s largest proximity restrictions. Not only must food trucks stay 1,000 feet away from any brick-and-mortar eating establishment, Cranston now requires that all food trucks be outfitted with a GPS tracking device and report twice daily to a commissary. (In 2011, the Institute for Justice sued the city of El Paso, Texas, for its 1,000 foot proximity ban, causing the city to quickly strike the law from the books.) And, if the vendors find these regulations too strenuous, they can always take a vacation–but not without approval, of course. The law requires food trucks to notify the City Council if they are going to be off the streets for more than two weeks.

The same winds of protectionism have blown the town of Westerly off course. In order to “level the playing field” for restaurants and cafes, mobile food stands in Westerly will now only be able to sell their wares at one-time events, like farmers markets, with one-time permits. When the City Council was informed that hounding hotdog vendors off the streets to protect established businesses might be unconstitutional, Councilman Kenneth Parrilla barked back that he won’t be threatened by constitutional litigation.

Westerly’s leaders are serious. George Manko has been selling Hawaiian shaved ice on the beach for 11 summers, but he now faces 16 counts of violating the new ban. Each infraction carries up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $500. The message from Councilwoman Patricia Douglas to those residents trying to earn an honest living through mobile vending was clear: “You are transient, you have wheels, you can go anywhere that will have you.” Anywhere does not, apparently, include Westerly.

Providence’s regulations, while not explicitly anti-competitive, are burdensome and awkward. Trucks may not set up shop in metered parking spaces, may not park anywhere for longer than one hour and are required to obtain three separate permits. In spite of these regulations, there is now a growing food-truck scene of entrepreneurs working hard to climb the economic ladder and meet the demands of customers who have clearly indicated their taste for greater lunchtime options. The “Creative Capital” could be fostering experimentation by removing barriers, but instead it seems content to throw roadblocks in front of innovation.

Some towns, however, are taking the opposite tack and loosening their mobile vending restrictions. Narragansett is expanding the number of days food trucks can sell at the beach and South Kingston is considering a similar law.

Mobile vending is, to many, the first step on the path to economic success. If Rhode Islanders want to increase economic mobility in their state, they should tell their officials to let the good food roll.

— James Allen
James Allen is a student at The Georgetown Law Center and a clerk at the Institute for Justice

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