In 2019, barbeque pitmaster Mark Shirley of Walstonburg decided to test his entrepreneurial skills by launching his own food truck business, Ole Time Smokehouse. If he succeeded, he thought, he might eventually expand into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Ole Time Smokehouse was indeed a hit, as Shirley built up a base of loyal customers in and around the nearby town of Farmville and even managed to prosper during the pandemic. What he didn’t count on was local officials enacting a series of arbitrary and burdensome regulations aimed at driving him out of town, forcing him to spend more than a year fighting for his right to serve his Farmville customers.
A story of government officials harassing an innovative small business is nothing new. But this one has a happy ending: faced with a constitutional lawsuit, Farmville town officials called a truce in their misguided regulatory war on Ole Time Smokehouse. And that’s not just a victory for Shirley and his barbeque food truck — it’s a win for the whole town and the right to earn a living.
The troubles began in April 2021 when the Farmville Board of Commissioners hiked food truck permit fees from $100 per year to $75 per day. For Shirley, that would add up to $7,800 in annual fees just to conduct business in Farmville for the maximum two days per week — another arbitrary restriction in the new ordinance that wasn’t placed on any other business in town. The board also increased the distance food trucks must keep from brick-and-mortar restaurants. Suddenly, the downtown space Shirley had leased to park his truck for the past two years was too close to a nearby restaurant.
So he moved his truck just outside of Farmville, and although he continued to stay afloat — thanks to loyal customers and a thriving catering business — the unfairness of the punishing new ordinances gnawed at him. Mark decided to fight back.
A local lawyer, Billy Strickland, suggested he talk to Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), who provided him with free legal counsel to challenge the town in court. PLF argued that the board’s abusive regulations, tailored to disadvantage food truck owners, were illegally intended to favor existing brick-and-mortar restaurants and violated the North Carolina state constitution’s right to the “fruits of their own labor” and guarantees of equal protection under the law.
The good news is that the Farmville officials, faced with a looming trial, chose to back off food trucks. Perhaps they sensed they were not on strong legal ground, or maybe they recognized that a court battle against an entrepreneurial food truck owner wasn’t the image the town wanted to project.
Whatever the motivation, town leaders made a deft course adjustment. The board knocked back the food truck permitting fee to $300 per year, eliminated the outrageous frequency restriction that limited food trucks to operating only two days a week, and allowed more freedom to operate in more locations. In addition, the board added a daily permit fee that will allow fledgling food truck operators to test the waters in Farmville without committing to a year-long permit.
Town officials erred in turning the permitting process against a small entrepreneur in such an abusive way, but the good news is they recognized their misstep and changed course. All too often, in cases like this, policymakers, bureaucrats or regulators dig in their heels and refuse to give in, even when they’re in the wrong. It reflects well on the Farmville town leaders that they were willing to step back and opt for a more constructive approach. That sends an encouraging message to other entrepreneurs that Farmville is a good place to do business and sets an example for other towns that want to attract more businesses and patrons.
Farmville isn’t a big city — according to the 2020 Census, the population is just over 4,700. So it’s best for everyone to find a way to work together, which is what happened in this case. A fairer, more-welcoming approach to food truck regulations will encourage entrepreneurship, boost the local economy, and give residents more dining options. Farmville’s fresh approach should be a win for everyone.
But Pacific Legal Foundation’s work is not yet done. PLF continues to offer legal assistance to entrepreneurs who find their constitutional guarantee to the right to earn an honest living under fire from local government officials. You can learn more about the latest case in North Carolina and send your case if you are facing similar restrictions as Mark Shirley.
This op-ed was originally published at The Carolina Journal on November 25, 2022.