How IJ Helped Save D.C. Food Trucks

August 1, 2013

By Bert Gall

Washington, D.C., has one of the best food-truck scenes in the country. Indeed, the success of the local food truck industry—aided by D.C. bureaucrats’ uncharacteristic decision to avoid strangling it in red tape while it was in its infancy—gave hope to many that D.C. might actually be working to rehabilitate its (well-deserved) reputation as a difficult place for small businesses to thrive.

But earlier this year, Mayor Vincent Gray did his best to dispel that hope by asking the D.C. City Council to approve new and sweeping restrictions that, if enacted, would have made D.C. one of the worst cities in America for food trucks. Specifically, these restrictions would have forbidden the vast majority of trucks from operating downtown unless they were lucky enough to win a lottery that would allow them to park in one of a limited number of designated spaces. As a result, the city’s food trucks would be deprived of the two things they need to succeed: mobility and reliable access to their customers.

IJ wasn’t about to stand idly by and allow the D.C. Council to approve these draconian restrictions, which threatened to put most of the city’s approximately 200 food trucks out of business. That is why we helped the D.C. Food Truck Association rally public opposition to the restrictions with its “Save D.C. Food Trucks” campaign. For example, we advised the association about activism, communications, and the legal and policy problems with the mayor’s proposed restrictions. We created a widely viewed food truck video that explained all of the economic and cultural benefits that food trucks provide to the D.C. community, and then warned that the proposed restrictions would strip those benefits away. We put large ads on 25 city buses that featured the hashtag “#savedcfoodtrucks” in order to amplify our and the association’s robust social media efforts. And we produced and distributed thousands of flyers urging people to contact their council member and tell them to oppose the proposed regulations.

During a hearing convened by the D.C. Council committee to discuss the proposed restrictions, I testified that the restrictions were not geared toward protecting public health and safety, but instead appeared aimed at stifling competition between food trucks and restaurants. After I noted that this purpose is unconstitutional—and that IJ litigation has forced other cities to repeal similar protectionist restrictions—the committee chairman clearly expressed his desire to avoid tangling with IJ in court: “We don’t want Mr. Gall coming back and suing us,” he said.

Fortunately, it looks like that won’t be necessary, at least for now: The D.C. Council bowed to public pressure by rejecting the mayor’s proposed restrictions and instead passing new rules that will let trucks continue to operate throughout the city. That is a big win for the economic liberty of food truck entrepreneurs in D.C.—a win that we will work to preserve by closely monitoring D.C. officials as they implement the new regulations. After all, especially in a place like D.C., eternal vigilance is the price of food truck freedom.

Bert Gall is an IJ senior attorney.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.