By Mark Shirley
The restaurant business is hard work. Long hours, narrow profit margins, fierce competition — given the challenges, it’s not surprising that 60 percent of new restaurants fail in their first year.
I was prepared for all those challenges and more when I launched my barbeque business, Ole Time Smokehouse, in a food truck in Farmville in 2019. What I didn’t anticipate was the town council passing an ordinance aimed at driving me out of business. Here’s why I’m fighting back.
First, my background: In 2019, I left my job managing an auto dealership to pursue my dream of owning a restaurant. I knew it was a big risk, but I had always loved cooking and decided it was a chance worth taking.
Based on my research of the industry, I decided to start with a food truck. Investing my small savings in a mobile option would allow me to test the waters, hone my entrepreneurial skills and develop a customer base without the full-on capital investment of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Then, if the business succeeded, I might look toward expanding into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Things got off to a great start. I leased a parking space on private property downtown and served lunch to a loyal and steadily growing number of local people who liked my barbecue. Limiting service to lunch hours allowed me to devote evenings and weekends to catering parties and special events. Things got tight when the COVID-19 lockdowns hit in 2020 — just a few months after I launched — but the ability to safely serve carry-out orders kept me afloat.
Then in April 2021, the Farmville Board of Commissioners raised food truck permit fees from $100 per year to $75 per day, among other restrictions. Suddenly, operating my truck just two days a week, the maximum allowed under the new ordinance, would cost $7,800 per year — a devastating amount of money for a small business, especially one just getting started. Under the new rule, I could no longer operate my food truck in the private parking space I leased without asking for written permission from my competitor across the street. To protect my business and myself, I moved my truck outside of the town limits until we could resolve the issue.
I was shocked that Farmville would pass an ordinance aimed at stamping out one little food truck. Maybe they just don’t like barbecue, or food trucks, or me personally. But none of those are good reasons for abusing the policy process to bully small entrepreneurs. After all, I had done everything I was supposed to do, and the town’s new restrictions just didn’t seem right or fair.
Troubled by this arbitrary and unfair ordinance, I connected with Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that works with small business owners and others to combat government abuse. They’re representing me as we challenge the town’s ordinance in court.
Honestly, it’s not something I wanted to do since litigation is time-consuming and stressful. Frankly, I’d rather focus on making the best barbecue, serving my loyal customers, and building my business for the future. But when you see something wrong, you need to be ready to stand up for yourself and others.
We want to send a message that small business is the backbone of the local economy, and town officials should be encouraging, not punishing, entrepreneurship.
This op-ed was originally published by The Daily Reflector on December 31, 2021.