Carolina Beach, N.C.—Variety is the spice of life, unless you live in the small beach community of Carolina Beach, North Carolina, where the town council has made it nearly impossible for food truck owners from neighboring towns to operate. Thankfully, the North Carolina state constitution makes that kind of economic protectionism illegal. So, today, a group of food truck owners have filed a lawsuit to strike down Carolina Beach’s unconstitutional ban on out-of-town trucks.
Carolina Beach’s illegal ordinance is remarkably straightforward in its favoritism. People who have owned restaurants in Carolina Beach for over a year can also own food trucks, but no one else can. That means the dozens of food trucks operating in the greater Wilmington, N.C.-area are effectively locked out of town. To justify the law, the town planner explained that, “direction from council as far as food trucks in the past has been they did not want it to be seen as competition for . . . brick and mortar businesses[.] We would not let an outsider come over the bridge and set up shop when they’re not an existing business.”
“Carolina Beach has turned their island’s bridge into a drawbridge to be pulled up on competition,” said Justin Pearson, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents the plaintiffs. “The North Carolina state constitution makes it illegal for towns like Carolina Beach to pick winners and losers by locking out businesses from neighboring communities. It is not the government’s job to decide what people eat, or where they eat it. That choice belongs to customers.”
Wilmington-based food truck owner Michelle Rock has spent thousands of hours perfecting pastries and meals inspired by her upbringing in New Orleans. Rock started with Momma Rocks Deserts, which features New Orleans-inspired cupcakes, cakes, and pastries. Her initial success paved the way for her to start a second truck, T’Geaux Boys—pronounced “to go boys”—which offers muffaletta sandwiches and other Louisiana delicacies. Her success over the past decade is a testament to her passion for Cajun cuisine and has enhanced the options in Wilmington’s dining scene.
“Carolina Beach is the only town in the area that doesn’t want us doing business,” said Rock.“It doesn’t make sense that restaurants that are already there are allowed to have food trucks when we aren’t.”
Rock is among many North Carolina-based food truck owners looking to do business, including Aaron and Monica Cannon, who own A&M’s Red Food Truck, and Harley Bruce, who owns Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering Truck. The Cannons’ Red Food Truck offers the same tacos with which the Cannons fell in love while serving in the military in San Diego, and Harley Bruce offers delicious pork sandwiches and fresh brisket. All these entrepreneurs want is to be able to serve Carolina Beach’s residents and visitors, which is why they’ve teamed up to file the lawsuit.
“Operating a food truck is hard but rewarding work,” Pearson added. “For many, a successful food truck can provide the know-how and capital to eventually open a traditional restaurant. This crucial step allows them to support themselves and their families, provide jobs to others, and invent creative dishes to the delight of the public.
“The North Carolina Constitution makes it illegal for government to protect businesses from competition,” said IJ attorney Johanna Talcott. “The government cannot block out-of-town businesses just to favor businesses already in the town. We will continue to fight for food truck owners and their constitutional right to earn an honest living.”
IJ fights for vendors’ rights across the country through its National Street Vending Initiative. IJ lawsuits in San Antonio, El Paso, Louisville, successfully eliminated protectionist laws that banned food trucks from operating near their brick-and-mortar competitors. IJ will be arguing against unconstitutional food truck regulations before the Illinois Supreme Court. IJ is also litigating food truck cases in Baltimore and Fish Creek, Wisc.