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The Great Food Truck Lobbying Race

September 14, 2010

The City of Emeryville, California, is looking for individuals to serve on its new “Food Truck Taskforce” — a bureaucratic reaction to the increased competition local “brick and mortar” restaurants face from mobile kitchens. Local worker Catherine Hicks tweeted, “restaurants are whining that trucks are more popular at lunch!” But the city sees this shift in lunching habits as a political problem requiring a political solution:

While the City recognizes that street vendors and food trucks have added to the vitality of the City, concerns have been raised that have led the City to believe that the current regulations should be reviewed to ensure that (brick and mortar) restaurants and other businesses are not negatively impacted by the growing numbers of mobile vendors.

Of course, one business’s “negative impact” is another business’s honest competition. As Hicks noted, “[N]ote to local restaurants: welcome to AMERICA! With opportunity comes competition!” Yet for many businesses, “competition” means jockeying for political position over satisfying customers. Brian Donahue wrote on his blog, The Emeryville Tattler

Ruby’s Cafe on Hollis Street serves several different kinds of juice. Ruby’s owner, Albert Repola knows a lot about juice, and he’s using it right now at City Hall, trying to oust food trucks that he sees as rapacious competitors. Mr. Repola has been very vocal in this view, repeatedly demanding action from City Hall. Officials, who seldom act in the benefit of small businesses, suddenly appear unusually responsive, vowing to add further regulations to the city’s Food Vendor Ordinance.

[ … ]

Could [the city's taskforce] possibly be political patronage at work? After all, Mr. Repola has been very generous in his support of the Council majority over the years.

Nevertheless, times are tough, and everyone is looking for a scapegoat. If Mr. Repola’s business isn’t quite as prosperous as it once was, perhaps it is the result of the unemployment or foreclosure rate, rather than from “competition” that cannot offer shelter from the weather or the amenities of a restaurant.

Unlike some restaurant owners, the food truck vendors have not paid money to the re-election campaigns of the Council majority. Maybe they think they’ll get a fair shake at City Hall regardless. Obviously, these vendors are new to town; they may know about food but they’re obviously selling the wrong kind of juice in Emeryville.

The taskforce itself is expressly charged with restricting competition. The city’s press release identifies seven objectives:

* Limiting the geographic area that mobile food vendors may operate
* Limiting the number of mobile food vendors
* Raising permit fees
* Regulating mobile food vendors on private property
* Use of public right of way for cooking, seating, and/or storage
* Limiting competition with fixed restaurants
* Developing remedies for non-compliance with the ordinance

Note that you don’t see any of the usual “health and safety” arguments used to justify intervention. Nor does the city rely exclusively on its power to control “public” property. All of the objectives are focused on making it more difficult for food trucks to operate, in the hopes of limiting their “negative impact” on politically favored brick-and-mortar restaurants.

The taskforce itself will include a Noah’s Ark-like complement of two city councilors, two representatives from the food trucks, two from the restaurants, and, most comically, two “patrons of food trucks and restaurants (1 each).” Apparently in Emeryville, people dine exclusively at one or the other, not both. Brian Donahue said he applied to the taskforce — I assume as a representative of food-truck patrons — but added, pessimistically, “Since I have strongly expressed views that food trucks are good and City Hall has already stated it wants to clamp down on food trucks I will not be allowed to serve on the task force.”

I should say, while it’s easy (and proper) to criticize the restaurant owners lobbying for new food truck restrictions, they are also victims of government intervention. Restaurants may be the most regulated category of business in the country. They are certainly one of the most overtaxed. What’s unfortunate in these cases is that restaurant owners choose to partner with the government against fellow small businesses rather then join those businesses against the government.

Business owners of all types, broken down by years of intervention, now take the current regulatory state as an immovable starting point and work to either hold the line or drag other businesses over to their side of the line. It’s easier — though not cheaper — to lobby local government hooligans then to simply say “no” to them.

For their part, the hooligans are cracking down on food trucks and similar businesses because they represent a threat to the thing the hooligans hold most dear — their “tax base.” Sure, the trucks may have to buy city permits and meet some licensing requirements, but they’re not paying exorbitant rents to occupy a parcel of taxable real estate. And to add insult to injury, they’re “stealing” customers from the businesses that are!

Emeryville officials no doubt see this taskforce as a necessary mechanism for self-defense. They’re under attack from a hostile force that is undermining their tax base and undermining the concept of a properly “planned” community. It’s only natural for the city to take aggressive measures to prevent this hostile force from expanding its foothold on the lunchtime purchasing habits of local workers. “Competition” and markets are fine in theory, but in the real world, bureaucrats need to feed their families and ensure themselves healthy pensions. They can’t do that when radicals in food trucks are destroying the tax base one sandwich at a time.

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