The War on Food Trucks

Despite this popularity, food trucks have their detractors—mostly restaurateurs and their allies—who argue food trucks harm restaurants. When food trucks started becoming popular, restaurants and their associations in large cities raised concerns about their impact on the restaurant industry. For example, Andrew Kline, head of legislative affairs for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., alleged in 2011 that food trucks kept business from brick-and-mortar restaurants in the District: “If you have a restaurant located on a street and a popular food truck pulls up in front of you, people see the crowd, they don’t want to come to the restaurant.” 1

Others in large cities have expressed similar concerns. In San Francisco, shortly after the Great Recession ended, food truck opponents argued for a limit on the number of food truck permits. 2 Landlords were worried about losing restaurant tenants, while restaurant owners thought it unfair that the city allowed food trucks to compete with restaurants so freely when they supposedly have minuscule overhead in comparison. 3 Rob Black, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, even claimed that association members saw “a daily revenue loss of up to 30 percent or 40 percent when [food] trucks park outside their businesses.” 4 Similarly, in Los Angeles, the Baja Fresh on Miracle Mile complained food trucks were hurting its bottom line. It allegedly saw its revenue decline 20% because of food trucks operating directly across the street and had to cut employee hours as a result. 5

As food trucks have spread to smaller cities and towns in more recent years, these complaints against food trucks have continued to arise. For example, in 2018, when Bowling Green, Ohio, considered allowing food trucks to operate in the city’s downtown, restaurant and other brick-and-mortar business owners complained that competition from the trucks would hurt their revenue. 6 Similarly, in Burien, Washington, more than 50 restaurants opposed a food truck pilot program because they worried food trucks would harm brick-and-mortar businesses already hurting during the COVID-19 pandemic. 7 Likewise, restaurants in Ottawa, Illinois, asked the City Council to regulate food trucks due to the pandemic’s impact on their businesses, “stating that the last thing they need is food trucks sitting at their front door.” 8

Food truck opponents in many cities have lobbied—often successfully—for various restrictions on food trucks, including limits on the number of food trucks that can operate, where they can operate and how long they can operate in any one spot. 9 An especially egregious example of caps on food trucks comes from South Padre Island, Texas. After receiving complaints about food trucks from restaurants, City Council members voted to cap the number of food truck permits at 12. Worse yet, the city required permit applicants to obtain the signature of a local restaurant owner—that is, one of their future competitors—to qualify for one of those 12 permits. 10

A second type of restriction bans trucks from operating within certain sections of a city or within a certain distance of brick-and-mortar restaurants. For example, in Albuquerque, after restaurants started to complain about food trucks parking near their doors, City Councilor Isaac Benton introduced an ordinance to prohibit food trucks from parking within 100 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, citing “unfair competition.” 11 The ordinance passed in September 2015, but in March 2016 the distance was reduced to 75 feet—to the chagrin of several downtown restaurant owners and City Councilor Ken Sanchez—after food trucks complained they could not find spaces to park. 12 And in 2011, Louisville, Kentucky, banned food trucks from operating—even on private property—within 150 feet of any restaurant selling similar food unless they received the restaurant’s permission. 13 This effectively turned large swathes of the city into no-vending zones. After IJ teamed up with two food vendors to sue the city, the Metro Council entered into a federal consent decree and repealed the protectionist ordinance. 14

Finally, some cities restrict how long food trucks can operate in any one spot. To try to curb trucks, Los Angeles tried making it illegal to park for more than 30 minutes in residential areas and for more than 60 minutes in commercial areas. However, the Los Angeles Superior Court struck this down for violating state law in 2009. 15