The War on Consumers: Food truck edition

Government likes to pretend it’s on the side of the little guy, and in particular the side of consumers, but in fact government generally sides with producers over consumers. The simple reason is that producers are fewer in number, and so the average producer has a greater stake in policy than does the average consumer. Sugar quotas, for example, might cost the typical consumer only $8 per year, but the policy can be worth thousands to the typical sugar grower. With a bigger stake, the producers have more incentive to effectively lobby the government for preferential treatment.

A couple of recent stories highlight how local governments are siding with restaurants against food trucks, and indirectly, consumers. The restaurants are using political leverage to restrict competition from the food trucks, and in the process, hurting consumers.

In Chicago, for instance, the restaurants got an ordinance passed requiring food trucks to stay 200 feet away from any restaurant. See, if a food truck came in close proximity to a restaurant, that might give consumers too much, you know, choice. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article notes that one of the major complaints against the street vendors is that they “poach customers from bricks-and-mortar businesses.” They can’t poach any customers, however, unless the customers allow themselves to be poached. The article notes that vendors consider the poaching charge to be “little more than economic protectionism.” Ya think?

And so now we are treated to the spectacle of vendors and police officers letting out string to ensure compliance with the 200-foot rule.

[Vendors] Balanzar and Hernandez said they go to great lengths to adhere to what city attorneys and many in Chicago’s food truck industry refer to as the “200-feet rule.”

“We went in the middle of the night, just to make sure there’s no traffic or anything like that. And we took a string, a 200-feet of string, and measured from a restaurant to the spot that we were planning to park. Just to make sure we’re 200 feet away,” Hernandez said in an interview at Kitchen Chicago, the West Side industrial center where a number of local food trucks prepare their products.

Balanzar, in particular, says that extra legwork recently paid off during a run-in with police enforcing that 200-foot rule at a West Loop intersection.

“The police came and said, ‘You know what, it’s about inches.’ So they said it’s OK,” Balanzar said.

So the Chicago police have the time and resources to survey distances from trucks to restaurants. Good to know there is no serious crime in Chicago that might divert their attention. Oh…wait.

The city also burdened the food trucks with additional absurd restrictions, and regulators have granted a license to cook on board to only one of the city’s 126 trucks.

Personally, we like food trucks and hope they find a way to prevail. A year ago in Los Angeles, we had great Korean food from a truck directly across from the L.A. County Museum. And at the semi-annual Springfield antiques fair, a food truck served up the best Pad Thai we’ve ever had in Ohio.