The first warning in the restaurant section of travel guides to Central America or Southeast Asia always is, “Don’t eat anything from the food trucks.” Standard guide books for American cities such as San Francisco and Portland advise the opposite: “Make sure you explore the stunning array of mobile food vendors offering unique concoctions in ethnic traditions from around the world.”
When it comes to regulations in the food service sector, Kansas City and other Midwestern cities have a lot to learn from their West Coast counterparts. The United States is known for its rigorous regulations on food and health with ordinances at federal, state and local levels. Yet municipal health codes are stringent with many regulations that have little or nothing to do with public health. Some of these laws are merely smoke screens aimed at protecting the interests of established (and sometimes subsidized) businesses from competition.
In Kansas City food truck operators are mandated to store food items, clean equipment, and dispose of waste in a certified “commissary kitchen” once every 24 hours. This imposes a serious burden on culinary entrepreneurs who want to circumvent large overhead costs and implies that their trucks are simply satellite operations.
When it comes to zoning restrictions, the Kansas City Health Department offers a convenient permit form with a section for operators to outline four priority locations. They are reasonably required to park a minimum of 5 feet away from fire hydrants and crosswalks but are not banned from any districts entirely, as they are in other Missouri cities.
Just southeast of Kansas City, Lee’s Summit reversed its ordinance banning food trucks in 2012. However, they are only allowed to operate between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and must park at least 60 feet away from established restaurants.
An even stricter set of rules is enforced in Liberty. In 2013, the city initiated a two-year pilot program allowing food trucks to operate in designated spaces in the downtown area. They may set up in private lots with written permission from the owners, but only from 7 a.m. to midnight on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
However, throwing mobile food vendors a bone by giving them a designated (and very limited) location challenges the very core of the businesses’ culture: mobility.
In fact, many business ventures begin as food trucks simply to establish a reputation without incurring large overhead costs. In St. Louis, for example, Seoul Taco, which The Daily Meal ranked as one of the top 100 food trucks in the nation, was started by two 27-year-old friends who recently opened a traditional storefront in the Delmar Loop.
A common misunderstanding about food trucks is that they do not pay taxes. In reality, Missouri’s property tax applies to trucks and equipment at the same rate as any restaurant. Food trucks also have to pay the gas tax in order to even operate.
One representative of downtown Liberty stated that his main concern is how the food truck business might affect brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Local municipalities have failed to realize that allowing competition among alternative modes of restaurants would raise the bar for overall performance and increase opportunities for consumer choice. Rather than detracting from the local restaurant scene, mobile food vendors could arguably add to it if local municipalities let them. With the benefit of increased sales tax revenue and reinvigorated public spaces, why shouldn’t they?
It is one thing for cities and counties to place limits on where a truck can park in the interest of traffic movement and safety. It is quite another to place unnecessary restrictions that limit consumer choice in order to protect old business from new competition.
Lunches may not be free, but vendors should be free to sell them.
Abigail J. Fallon, a student at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., recently interned at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified where Fallon was a student.