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Wisconsin Food Trucks Enjoy the Sweet Taste of Victory

It’s been nearly a decade since IJ rolled out our National Street Vending Initiative. In that time, we have worked on the ground with entrepreneurs from Los Angeles to New York and won important court victories against protectionist restrictions that use government power to close the door—and the streets—to competition and innovation.

Our latest victory is a perfect example of how these fights play out—and what it means when we win them. IJ’s clients, the Hadraba and Howard families, purchased and painstakingly revitalized a cherry orchard and historic market in the small tourist town of Fish Creek in Wisconsin’s Door County. Their plan was to start their own business—a dream as American as the cherry pie they sold there. To offer burgers and barbecue, too, they opened a food truck in their store’s parking lot.

It was a sweet setup. Unfortunately for our clients, their town’s board—chaired by the owner of a local brick-and-mortar restaurant—thought the competition they provided was the pits.

The day Chris Hadraba opened the food truck, the chairman paid him a visit. Chris showed him all the right permits and licenses and thought the business was in the clear. He and his partners were shocked when the town board instead chose to demand that the county revoke their permit. When the county refused, the town banned food trucks, ultimately making it impossible to vend in areas containing brick-and-mortar restaurants without risking fines of $500 per day.

IJ joined with the Hadrabas and Howards to challenge this blatant protectionism. The town’s response? To claim it wasn’t protectionist, arguing it had actually banned food trucks for the sake of traffic safety, town “character,” and property taxes.

The state trial court didn’t buy it. The judge carefully examined the facts and concluded that the town’s laws had no relation to the three reasons it gave for them in court. In a decisive ruling in our favor, the court held that the town’s vending laws represented the illegitimate “use of public power to suppress competition from one entity for another special interest’s financial benefit” and was “nothing less than illegal and unconstitutional economic protectionism.”

This decision matters. The government regularly offers plausible-sounding rationales for anticompetitive restrictions that just don’t hold water under examination. Rulings like this one take economic liberties seriously and ensure that the government can’t simply pick winners and losers in the marketplace. That is a victory worth savoring.

Milad Emam is an IJ attorney.

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