Food trucks are in demand.
According to IBISWorld, a market research publisher, the food truck industry has grown by over 9 percent annually in the United States over each of the last five years.
But not everyone is welcoming these entrepreneurs and their thriving businesses. Food truck operators in Raleigh face some of the toughest restrictions in the state.
Currently, both the truck owner and landowner must secure permits to set up shop. They can operate only within certain districts, and there are limits on how many can operate based on the size of the property. They must close at 3 a.m. or 10 p.m. if near a residential area. Trucks also cannot operate within 100 feet of a restaurant.
Regulations were even tougher in past years. Until 2011, food trucks were allowed to operate within Raleigh city limits only if they acquired an event permit for a single location, and even then it lasted for only 20 days.
The industry, however, has found a way to grow. According to city records, there are currently 75 trucks and 39 properties with active permits in Raleigh. Still, city planners look set to impose even more restrictions on where they can operate. A proposed change in the zoning code would block vendors from operating in “NX” districts. These districts are meant to serve as buffer zones between residential and commercial zones.
At the same time, the food truck phenomenon is flourishing in Durham. How has Durham emerged as the king of the Triangle when it comes to food trucks?
Duke University and downtown Durham have allowed food trucks to operate without jumping through the kinds of bureaucratic hoops encountered in Raleigh. Operators in the Bull City face no zoning restrictions, lower permit costs ($75 versus $226 in Raleigh), no limits on how many food trucks can operate at one location, no limits to restaurant proximity, and no limits on operating hours.
The Bull City’s own Only Burger and American Meltdown capitalized early on the “hip factor.” They have since received national accolades and even opened brick-and-mortar locations. All this demonstrates the missed economic opportunity caused by overregulation in Raleigh.
Raleigh’s resistance to food trucks could be due to pressure from traditional restaurants. Owners of such establishments believe that their business will be whisked away by these kitchens on wheels. But protectionism has no place in a free market, and the interests of those individuals do not outweigh the interests of Raleigh citizens. The government’s only job is to make sure the food trucks meet health and safety standards.
Some argue that allowing food trucks to operate freely causes too much commotion. People claim that the sound of a generator will wake their kids up in the middle of the night.
I would respond that we have law enforcement officials to deal with these types of disputes on a case-by-case basis. It has not been an epidemic in Durham, so there is no reason to assume food trucks will cause a ruckus in Raleigh. There are already laws in place to protect against that.
In order to achieve a truly free market in food service, Raleigh must remove barriers to entry for food trucks. The city can start by removing the restrictions on how many food trucks can operate.
Currently, even if one owns property larger than an acre, a maximum of only three food trucks are allowed to operate. This is a clear encroachment on property rights.
It is bad enough that a landowner has to get a zoning permit for a food truck to park on his property, but a private property owner should be allowed to put as many trucks on his property as he wishes.
Raleigh can learn a lot from Durham, where all one needs to operate a food truck is a health inspection, business license, and mobile cart permit. As long as the waste is disposed of properly, the only disruption caused by food trucks is disruptive innovation — the creation of new markets that ultimately benefit consumers and industries.
Zack Hasanin is a Research Intern for the John Locke Foundation.