Food Truck Owners Fight For Right To Do Business In Fort Pierce, Fla.

Institute for Justice · December 6, 2018

As the owner of the Taco Trap food truck, Benny Diaz has reaped the rewards of hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit. He started out making his unique taco creations from his grandmother’s recipes at a restaurant in Port St. Lucie, Florida. From there, patrons encouraged him to start a business of his own. Benny’s tacos garner rave reviews across the board, and nearby Fort Pierce’s residents keep inviting him to come to their town. But accepting those invitations would require Diaz to break the law.

Why? Because Benny sells his tacos from a food truck instead of a restaurant, and in 2014 Fort Pierce enacted a ban on food trucks operating within 500 feet of any restaurant. That restriction is one of the most stringent proximity bans in the country and makes it almost impossible for Benny and other food truck owners to do business.

Fortunately, the Florida Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government interference, which is why Diaz and Brian Peffer, the owner of the Creative Chef on Wheels food truck, are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge Fort Pierce’s unconstitutional law.

The law’s sole purpose is to protect existing restaurants from competition, a fact the city repeatedly mentioned while enacting the ban; in 2014 then-Commissioner Edward Becht said that the 500-foot ban exists because allowing food trucks to compete for business would “hurt the brick-and-mortar businesses.”

That does not pass constitutional muster in the state of Florida, IJ Florida Office Managing  Attorney Justin Pearson said.

“Fort Pierce’s 500-foot ban is one of the most restrictive in the nation, and it exists for only one reason—to prevent food trucks from competing with restaurants,” Pearson said. “Fort Pierce is not allowed to stifle food trucks just to enrich restaurants. The government does not get to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. That choice belongs to customers.”

“We’re not looking for special treatment. I just want to be able to sell tacos legally like any restaurant can,” Benny said.

Enforcement of the 500-foot ban is severe. To serve customers, food truck owners must pick one specific location and pay a fee that is only valid for that one location. Before the permit is issued, the location is visited by code enforcement officers who personally measure to ensure the location is 500 feet from the property line of the nearest “similar type business.”

“It is crazy to me that the city treats you like a criminal just for wanting to do business there as a food truck owner,” said Brian, who has worked in the culinary industry all over the world. “The city doesn’t stop restaurant owners from being near each other.”

“Political connections should not determine where people are allowed to eat. Fort Pierce’s residents want more food options, and the food truck owners want to provide them. Fort Pierce’s government should get out of the way,” said Dane Stuhlsatz, a constitutional law fellow at IJ who is also an attorney on the case. “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, Texas, Carolina Beach, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, have 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, Wisconsin.