Food truck freedom is a winning situation for everyone, including opposing restaurants

December 06, 2023 | By KYLE SWEETLAND
Mark Shirley serving

Brick-and-mortar restaurants complain about being harmed by food trucks because of their mobility and cost advantages. In response, local government officials often capitulate to pressure from restaurants and aggressively regulate food trucks. But that’s a mistake that ultimately costs everyone—including brick-and-mortar restaurants.

A research article I coauthored while at the Institute for Justice (IJ) shows that restaurants are not actually harmed by food trucks and may even benefit from their presence. Looking at every county across the nation over 12 years, IJ’s research shows that restaurants vastly outnumber food trucks and that both generally grew over time.

Most important, IJ found that food truck growth in one year was not followed by restaurant decline in the next. Instead, there turned out to be a positive, complementary relationship between the two over time—proving that food trucks and restaurants thrive together.

How is this possible? In our article, we put forth a few likely reasons: First, food trucks boost foot traffic to a neighborhood and lead customers to discover new restaurants. Second, food trucks aren’t really an apples-to-apples competitor for most restaurants; they might compete with fast food restaurants for customers’ attention, but not with restaurants that offer a sit-down experience and table service. Last, food trucks have pushed restaurants to innovate with their own food trucks and to-go windows. These findings cast a harsh light on brick-and-mortar restaurants’ hostility toward food trucks, which don’t deserve to be cast as restaurants’ enemy.

An example of the hostility and harm food trucks face can be found in Farmville, North Carolina, a small town of about 4,500 people. In 2019, Mark Shirley left his job at an auto dealership and decided to start a barbeque food truck in town with the dream of opening his own restaurant someday. Over time, his business grew as people noticed his delicious food. But some restaurants in Farmville also noticed and complained to local officials, alleging that Mark’s food truck would steal their business.

In April 2021, the Farmville Board of Commissioners increased permit fees for food trucks significantly and required them to get written permission from nearby competing restaurants to operate. The board also limited food trucks from operating more than two days per week and increased the distance food trucks must keep from brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Due to these stifling regulations, Mark was unable to continue operating in Farmville and had to move his truck outside town limits. Unwilling to go down without a fight, Mark teamed up with Pacific Legal Foundation to defend his right to earn a living free from irrational government interference. Town leaders, facing a looming trial, backtracked on their regulatory changes, allowing Mark and other food truck entrepreneurs to operate more freely.

The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. When government officials stay out of the way, entrepreneurs like Mark are free to earn a living and businesses are free to compete with each other in giving people the best possible products, services, and delicious food—and everyone wins.