"Food truck freedom! Let my people eat!" (in Baltimore)

A couple of months ago we looked at a nasty bit of crony capitalism in Baltimore, Maryland involving food trucks. They hadn’t managed to outlaw them entirely, but the city fathers did cut a deal for local brick and mortar business owners which forbid food trucks from parking and operating within 300 feet of a conventional business which sold anything too “similar” to what the truck owner was offering. This led some of the local food truck owners to go to court and challenge the law. The first phase of those proceedings has now concluded and a judge has struck down the law. Unfortunately, this will likely only provide temporary relief because the court claims that the law is allowable, but is too vague in its current form to be fairly enforced. (Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s ban on food trucks operating within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a similar product is too vague to enforce, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The opinion by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Karen C. Friedman responded to a May 2016 lawsuit brought by food truck owners, who argued the rule unconstitutionally blocked competition and put them at an economic disadvantage. The case went to trial this past September.

In her decision, Friedman said that it was not unconstitutional for the city to regulate food trucks, but that the rule is so vague that “enforcement is likely to be subjective and arbitrary until the ordinance has been clarified by amendments.”

Despite having “won” the case for now, the plaintiffs are appealing anyway. They’re describing this as, “the first step toward food truck freedom,” but hardly a final resolution. The food truck operators are still in business for the time being, but they’re looking to have the law struck down entirely, not simply amended to be more specific.

I will readily grant that the law is badly written and open to far too much interpretation as it stands. The phrases “primarily engaged in” and “same type of food product” could be ignored or abused at the discretion of city officials. If your truck sells hot dogs and hamburgers, but also coffee, donuts and egg sandwiches for the morning crowd, what are you “primarily engaged in” each day? Even more to the point, how “similar” can your product be? If you’re parked near an Italian restaurant with a full range of typical dishes but you’re selling calzones and mozzarella sticks, are you “too similar” to pasta dishes and meatballs?

None of those issues truly address the underlying problem with this law, however. As we discussed when this originally came up, the entire concept of the law as framed by the city is problematic. They base the need for it on the fact that a truck costs less to operate than a brick and mortar restaurant so they can charge less for their food. This supposedly creates unfair competition. Well, a smaller, less well appointed building down the street could operate with lower costs as well. Some people are willing to pay more for higher quality service and a nice setting. Similarly, not everyone wants to eat standing up on the sidewalk and will pay more to sit at a table and be waited upon.

That’s the nature of competition. If the food trucks prosper to the detriment of the restaurants then the latter will need to step up their game. Allowing the city to pass a law specifically and admittedly designed to limit competition strikes me as unconstitutional in the extreme. This law doesn’t need modifications… it needs to be abandoned entirely.

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