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Charm City’s Less-Than-Charming Vending Laws

The customer is king. At least, they are supposed to be. But in Baltimore, government officials—not customers—decide where people get to shop and eat. And that heavy-handed approach is making it nearly impossible for the city’s mobile vendors to earn a living and build thriving businesses.

Two years ago, the city banned mobile vendors, including food trucks, from operating within 300 feet of any brick-and-mortar business that sells the same type of food, product or service. So while a taco truck is banned from operating near a Mexican restaurant, a grilled cheese truck can park right out front. And since Baltimore has a big restaurant scene, this makes it especially hard for vendors to find a block that does not have a business that sells the same thing. The result: Consumers are left with fewer shopping and dining choices and fledgling businesses are left with fewer opportunities to succeed.

This “300-foot rule” hits Baltimore’s food truck industry particularly hard. Take, for example, IJ client Joey Vanoni. A Navy veteran, Joey opened his food truck, Pizza di Joey, after returning from Afghanistan in 2013. Several job opportunities Joey had lined up were no longer available, so he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of opening his own pizza business. Joey’s truck not only serves authentic, New York-style pizza, it also enables Joey to provide jobs to his fellow veterans. He is the kind of entrepreneur that Baltimore should welcome with open arms.

Instead, Baltimore makes it illegal for Joey to operate within 300 feet of any place that sells pizza. If he parks even one foot too close, Joey could be given a $500 fine for each violation and possibly lose his mobile vending license. As a result, Joey increasingly relies on private events to stay in business and has been forced to cut back on the hours he can schedule his fellow veterans to work.

Or look at IJ client Nikki McGowan. She opened her food truck, Madame BBQ, in 2015 as an extension of the culinary business she had founded to support her three children as a single mother. But Nikki has a hard time finding an area in Baltimore free of restaurants that sell pulled pork sandwiches; she regularly avoids the city altogether.

Baltimore’s 300-foot rule has one and only one purpose: protecting brick-and-mortar businesses from competition. Because the rule turns on whether a food truck sells the same type of food as any nearby business, Joey would face a $500 fine for operating near a pizzeria, but Nikki would not. And while Joey could sell slices near a barbecue joint, Nikki would be breaking the law by vending near one. Clearly, the law has nothing to do with actual health and safety concerns and everything to do with limiting competition.

That is why Joey and Nikki have teamed up with IJ to challenge the 300-foot rule under the Maryland Constitution. Our lawsuit will defend the economic liberty of Baltimore’s mobile vendors and all entrepreneurs throughout Maryland. This is the latest case in IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative, through which the Institute has defended street vendors across the country against anticompetitive, protectionist regulations.

Greg Reed is an IJ attorney.

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