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Cities Are Quietly Waging War on Marginalized Food Truck and Street Vendors

City leaders are clamping down on small entrepreneurs to protect the profits of their wealthy business allies.

A street vendor sells tamales in buns at Junction Boulevard in the Queens Borough of New York City, on November 27, 2019.

Married business partners Theslet Benoir and Clemene Bastien immigrated from Haiti and settled in Parksley, Virginia, in 2005. They followed the law when they opened a brick-and-mortar store and expanded with the town’s first food truck in June 2023.

Local officials should have celebrated the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, they punished it: A Town Council member came to the restaurant and confronted Benoir and Bastien about their food truck one week after the launch, accusing the couple of stealing business from nearby restaurants. When the couple refused to shut down, the elected official cut a pipe, putting the food truck temporarily out of service and causing food to spoil.

“When I came and saw him cut the pipe, I was not happy at all,” Benoir said in French Creole. “I stood there because I knew this was a man of law. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I was in shock.” The official returned the next day and interfered with grocery deliveries. He said he had authority to enter the property and take “remedial action” because his council duties included oversight of the town’s public works department. Yet law enforcement is a job for code enforcement officers or the police, not policymakers.

When Benoir and Bastien persisted, the government responded with a new type of bullying. The Town Council passed an ordinance banning all food trucks except during special events. The fact that Benoir and Bastien were operating on their own property didn’t matter.

After the vote, the mayor announced that the town did not intend to enforce the new ordinance until Benoir and Bastien’s annual license had expired in summer 2024. The clock was ticking. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, decided not to wait. Working with the couple, we sent a letter on November 2, 2023, urging the town to repeal its ordinance.

Many municipalities back down when we lay out the constitutional case for economic liberty — the right to earn an honest living. Most recently, Haines City, Florida, reversed plans to criminalize food trucks following our intervention. But Parksley, an Eastern Shore community north of Virginia Beach, dug in.

The next day after receiving our letter, the town’s attorney threatened to throw Benoir and Bastien in jail. The town also backtracked on its promise to let them operate their food truck until their license expired. To avoid hefty fines and incarceration, the couple would have to cease and desist immediately.

Terrified, the law-abiding couple complied. But they did not give up their fight. With representation from our firm, they sued on January 23, 2024. Their complaint not only alleges the loss of economic liberty, but also a violation of their First Amendment right to speak without retaliation. Protesters may push the limits of time, place, manner restrictions embedded within the First Amendment when they impede traffic or trespass, but sending words by mail is clearly protected.

“When I received the letter from the town attorney, I got very sad because I was trying to do something good,” Benoir said in French Creole. “Even the people who were coming and buying from my business — some of them were hungry because they did not know how to cook, so they were buying food from me. When I was unable to serve them, some of them even cried.”

Tactics vary, but attempts like Parksley’s to push aside mobile businesses are becoming more common nationwide. Many municipalities talk in hypothetical terms about health and safety risks without showing actual harm. Regardless of the rhetoric, the true battle lines are “insider” versus “outsider.” Anxious to protect politically connected constituents from competition, municipal leaders pass rules to stop marginalized workers like Haitian immigrants Benoir and Bastien from joining the mainstream economy.

Often, the motives are financial. Other times, people with privilege just want to preserve a system that works in their favor. Our law firm has litigated cases from coast to coast for 30 years, and we find these attitudes everywhere. It isn’t a red or blue state issue. Protecting the powerful from competition is sadly bipartisan.

Street vendors and food truck owners make especially soft targets. Research from our firm shows they tend to be economically disadvantaged. More than half are immigrants, 62 percent are people of color and 28 percent did not complete high school.

Most mobile business owners lack access to backroom dealmaking. They do not have time to get involved in local politics. They work too much. Our research shows that full-time sidewalk vendors put in, on average, more than 11 hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week. Three out of four part-time vendors hold a second job.

Picking on them is easy — akin to bullying — due to the power imbalance. Mobile vendors usually lack clout to call news conferences, and they typically lack resources to sue. Some operate in the shadows due to the rigged regulatory environment, so they are afraid to speak up. Others have limited English ability.

But when they do find their voice, they share troubling stories: New York City officers arrested María Falcon for selling mangos at a subway station in 2022. The police handcuffed her, strip-searched her, destroyed her inventory and issued a court summons.

Brothers Anubis and Adonai Avalos could not even get started in South Padre Island, Texas. They have a food truck, but the city banned them from driving it across the causeway and setting up without written permission from a local brick-and-mortar restaurant owner.

Baltimore zoning officials took a different approach with military veteran Joey Vanoni. They told him he could operate his food truck, but not within a certain distance of any brick-and-mortar food establishment. The rules left Vanoni with almost nowhere to park.

This is a common tactic. Jacksonville, North Carolina, for example, effectively bans food trucks from operating in 96 percent of the city. San Diego, meanwhile, has waged a war on sidewalk vendors. The mayor recently threatened to impound pushcarts and destroy the inventory of any sidewalk vender caught selling food in certain parts of the city.

None of this hostility is necessary. Research shows that mobile food businesses create an overall benefit in the communities where they operate by attracting more consumers to an area. One Los Angeles study calls this the “sidewalk stimulus.” Brick-and-mortar stores — even restaurants — near sidewalk vendors in LA were more likely to experience job growth than other stores.

Back in Virginia, Benoir and Bastien just want a chance to compete on a level playing field. Their lack of political influence shouldn’t matter. It’s not the government’s job to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. That choice belongs to consumers.

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