Raleigh city officials are patiently considering revised regulations that would allow increased downtown access to food trucks, or freestanding mobile food vendors. City officials will meet again August 30th in pursuit of a full council decision by early September. Someone should save them the time. It’s not surprising that something that makes many residents very happy and a handful of vocal business owners and merchant associations unhappy has attracted the council’s attention.
In this case, Raleigh officials actually have the opportunity to lessen a prohibitive system of measures against these food vendors. Food vendors have only been allowed to do business during special events. Now they are considering letting them set up daily, provided they meet certain “considerations.” Translation: heavy regulations.
Lawmakers are not rushing to make a final decision. Instead, debate will continue over where and when these trucks can park. Downtown and the Glenwood South entertainment districts seem to represent the greatest demand for these vendors and many established restaurants are, unsurprisingly, opposed to another source of competition. One restaurant owner expressed support for a lottery system for access to prime spots, not unlike disastrous taxi cab medallion systems in D.C. and New York. This cartel system would require the limited few allowed into the market to pay exorbitant fees, then systematically deny others entry.
Fortunately that reasoning has not gained much traction with the council. One fallback argument is to increase the required distance a food vendor must set their truck away from established restaurants. Distances from 100 to 150 yards or more have been discussed. Given the proliferation of restaurants, this regulation would be unreasonably prohibitive. It is difficult to understand why this argument carries any weight. Restaurants do not own the public access walkways and roads that they are attempting to prevent vendors from operating on; the council regulates these areas. What incentive is there for the council to cave to the concentrated interest of a few ready-built restaurants in conflict with the interests of numerous potential consumers and aspiring entrepreneurs?
Councilman Thomas Crowder is concerned for Raleigh’s neighborhoods while other council members lamented the nightmare law enforcement will face no matter the regulatory conclusion. Crowder argues that “food trucks could become a center of entertainment.” Not much different from, say, restaurants and bars? The late night issues Crowder alludes to are already regulated. It is fairly clear that the city has public indecency, drunkenness and disturbing the peace laws. That argument introduces nothing but a red herring.
Crowder compares concern over potential noise levels to the aftermath of Hurricane Fran in 1996 when noisy generators disturbed the sleep of several citizens. Never mind the purpose of the generators. There was no mention of the heightened demand for electricity in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
These innovative vendors have already found ways to address Crowder’s concerns. They pointed out that hay stacks can be piled and their truck’s position altered to minimize sound levels. It seems intuitive that if the noise were too disruptive, the police could be called to handle such a disturbance rather than prohibit an entire industry’s market access. Yet the current debate will inevitably produce a frustrating textbook of regulations for what should be fairly simple.
The council’s concern is unwarranted. Food vendors offer a wider selection and lower costs to consumers. They create jobs and business for the middle and lower classes. In particular, younger, less risk-averse entrepreneurs willingly compete in the market and encourage established restaurants to operate more efficiently. All the potential social negatives are window dressing for the real purpose of curtailing the access of independent vendors and helping entrenched establishments. Police will have trouble with nightlife enforcement regardless. Anyone who has been to a rowdy bar or restaurant late night in downtown Raleigh already knows that.
New York has already mistakenly curtailed food truck services. Regulatory legislation is slowly making its way through Washington, D.C.’s city government. Raleigh should avoid that same mistake.
William Bejan is a summer fellow at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh (nccivitas.org)
This op-ed originally appeared in Wake Weekly and the Lincoln Tribune