Things get all screwy when the debate turns to food trucks. Black is white. Warm is cold. And downtown stalwarts who have railed against municipal regulations for years -- sometimes even decades -- turn into regulatory hawks, pushing new rules that would affect their competitors. Wes Isbutt, owner of the Arts Factory, is known almost as much for his criticism of bureaucracy and red tape as his contributions to the city's arts scene. Yet there was his assistant, reading a statement to the city council as it considered an ordinance to regulate food trucks. All of a sudden, Isbutt is in favor of regulating small businesses. He wants mobile vendors to stay at least 300 feet away from his restaurant at the corner of Charleston and Main Street. And Dick Geyer? President of the 18b neighborhood association and card-carrying Libertarian? Also in favor of a 300-foot buffer. Former UNLV professor Murray Rothbard must be spinning in his grave.
The city council did not approve a buffer this afternoon, even after considering several proposals that ranged from 150 feet to 1,300 feet. Eight food truck vendors marched (more like walked) from the Ice House to City Hall to add their voices to the debate. When I arrived at the Ice House, I hoped I would be witnessing the most delicious protest in Vegas history. But the most dramatic moment of the morning was watching the proprietor of the Redneck Kitchen park his oversize trailer in the cramped Ice House parking lot before ambling over to council chambers.
The city has spent a considerable amount of time and effort considering the food truck issue. Brick-and-mortar restaurants don't want the mobile establishments parking in front of their businesses. That's an understandable complaint. If the city wants to prevent food trucks from parking right in front of restaurants, they should only be considering buffers of 150 feet or less. A 1,300-foot buffer (roughly a quarter-mile, proposed by the planning commission) doesn't prevent a food truck from parking in front of a restaurant, it prevents a food truck from parking in the same zip code as a restaurant. Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Two of the biggest food truck cities have much more modest regulations. Portland has no buffer between trucks and restaurants. In Austin, the distance is 20 feet -- roughly the same distance you'd have to walk to get to the restaurant next door. By the way, Austin has more than 600 licensed food trucks, and many of them congregate on South Lamar Boulevard. None of the mobile businesses seem to suffer from setting up camp close to competitors.
One of the subtexts of the debate is whether the government needs to protect businesses from competitors. The proposed regulations don't protect consumers, who presumably benefit from increased choice and variety. They protect brick-and-mortar businesses from rivals who have adopted a more efficient business model. Other writers have already made this point, so I won't do it here.
"We've lured all these restaurants downtown and we've got them paying a lot of money," said Councilman Bob Coffin, who supported the 300-foot buffer.
That may be true. Restaurants and other small businesses are suffering in this economy and want to protect the bottom line. Stifling robust competition won't help the city in the long run, and may just run a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs out of town. This report by the Institute for Justice lays out exactly why mobile vendors are good for communities. Lisa Popovsky, who owns Roamin' Dough with her husband, said she could accept a 150-foot buffer. Now the restaurants need to come around.