Despite a pandemic and excess local regulation, food truck owner Mark Shirley refuses to abandon his dream

October 13, 2021 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
NC food Truck

No one ever starts a business with the intent to fail. But thanks to Farmville, North Carolina’s new food truck regulations, one man’s burgeoning business stands in jeopardy.

It takes a great deal of courage to leave your established career and follow your bliss, but that is exactly what Mark Shirley did.

For years, Mark had a secure job managing a car dealership just outside of Farmville. While his job paid the bills, his real passion was cooking. “I’ve cooked all my life for friends and family, and it’s a passion of mine that I’ve always enjoyed, and everybody has always just raved about my Southern cooking.”

Realizing the time was now or never, he seized the opportunity to turn his love of cooking into his livelihood and made plans to quit his job to pursue that dream.

Starting a business is no easy feat. In the year prior to resigning from the car dealership, he began to map out a plan to get his idea off the ground.

He considered his options: He could invest in a brick-and-mortar restaurant, or he could go the mobile route and start a food truck business. Mark researched thoroughly until he ultimately decided that opening a food truck was the way to go. It was in that moment that the Ole Time Smokehouse barbeque food truck was born.

Mark knew it would be difficult to get started, but if he could get through the first year with all his bills paid, then this journey as an entrepreneur might just work.

Little did he know when he opened his food truck in September of 2019 that a global pandemic was right around the corner. It’s hard for any new business to stay afloat, but it’s significantly more difficult when the entire country shuts down.

Fortunately, he found the silver lining in his situation.

“There was a positive side to me being mobile and being takeout-only because other restaurants had their dining rooms shut down by mandates. But I never missed a day of operation because I’m takeout-only. So that was a blessing, as far as my business goes, and COVID.”

In the early days of COVID, with much of the population staying home, or getting out on a limited basis, business started out slow but gradually picked up. “I had that obstacle against me. But after the first 12 months, I said to myself, ‘This is going to work. This is really going to work.’ And it’s just been great ever since.”

With his takeout business beginning to boom, Mark’s entrepreneurial spirit was reinvigorated. And to his joy, he received increasing support from his patrons. Four days a week, he sets up his truck and begins to serve lunch at 11:00 AM and works until he sells out, which usually happens in just a couple of hours. But don’t let that fool you into thinking he has a lot of free time on his hands.

“I cook Eastern North Carolina-style barbeque, and that is a seven-hour process to cook it. I’m up every morning at 3:30 or 4:00, putting the barbeque on my cookers. I do try to get a maybe another hour or two nap after that, but my day generally starts at 7:00 AM, full throttle. And I get up and get my trailer to my destination for that day, usually around 8:00, and that’s when I start preparing all the side dishes and just getting everything ready. So, I have an eight-hour day every day.”

In the evenings and on weekends, he takes catering gigs for weddings, family reunions, and churches.

Over the past couple of years his dedication paid off and his business began to grow, until small-town bureaucrats got in his way.

While catering certainly helps his business grow, it’s his lunchtime shifts that really help him pay the bills. While he works a total of four days a week, he splits that time between two towns, Farmville being one of them.

Mark lives in a small town just outside of Farmville, but he is heavily connected to Farmville. His first job out of high school was for a small electrical company in Farmville, also home to the dealership he had just left.

In Farmville, everyone knows everyone. You can’t grocery shop without running into someone you know.

The town and its community have been a huge part of Mark’s life for decades, which made it all the more shocking when town officials passed new food truck laws granting preferable treatment to brick-and-mortar restaurants over food trucks. Responding to the new laws, Mark said, “I was just floored, I was in shock, I was panicked. When asked about the new ordinance, I said, ‘Well, man, this is my income, this is not a hobby.’”

When regulations of this nature are passed, it’s often other businesses trying to eliminate their competition by asking officials to strangle them with unnecessary red tape.

And that is exactly what happened here. As it turns out, existing brick-and-mortar establishments complained to town officials out of fear that Mark’s food truck would steal their business.

Nonetheless, the new laws caused Mark a lot of emotional distress. He had given up the security of a steady paycheck and poured all his savings into this business. If it had failed because he hadn’t been able to sustain a customer base, that would be one thing, but his business’ shaky future was a direct result of the town’s new laws.

Mark was prepared to fight the new laws, but doing so would cost potentially tens of thousands of dollars. After all the money he had spent getting his food truck up and running, this was a price he couldn’t afford to pay.

That’s when he found Pacific Legal Foundation.

Mark was elated to have someone on his side to help represent him in court, free of charge. With our attorneys by his side, he dedicated himself to the fight.

“Well, somebody in my position, my restaurant is on wheels. It would’ve been so easy for me to just say, ‘To hell with it, I’ll just go to the next town and I’ll start over.’ But I’m not that type of guy. I started from scratch in the beginning, and I’m not the one to be told, ‘Get out of my town and go start over somewhere else.’”

Mark is fighting for more than just Ole Time Smokehouse.

“This has made me think about the next generation, the next Mark that has this dream of doing this thing and does it, and the Town of Farmville sees him being successful and then puts a stop to it. I think it’s time that I or we or whoever, it’s time for somebody to stand up to the Town of Farmville.”

He continued:

“If this case could help the next person down the road not to have to go through this, then it’s going to be so worth it.”

It’s important for Mark that his actions encourage others in a similar position. He hopes other entrepreneurs will notice and say, “Hey, you stood up, and you, the nobody, the little guy, you stood up to small-town government, and you were able to tell them where to stick it.”

He added, “If I help the next generation, the grandkids that are in Farmville, it’d be something that you don’t ever forget in your life.”

Mark has been touched to have the Farmville community behind him. Even now that he’s had to operate on the outskirts of town, residents and even government employees have still made the drive to support him.

While taking on a city government is not for the faint of heart, Mark says:

“I was raised on ‘what’s right’s right, and what’s wrong’s wrong.’ And I was doing everything right, I was doing everything as the original food truck ordinance stated that I needed to do, I was doing everything I was supposed to, I was just operating my business trying to make a living. And what’s right’s right and what’s wrong is wrong, and I felt like what they did to me was wrong.”

Every individual has the right to economic liberty so that they may earn an honest living and provide for themselves. PLF will be helping Mark defend this right in court.