A food truck influx has Downtown restaurants—and local government—crying foul

Photo: Leila Navidi

We often hear that businesses wish government would merely get out of the way. Just as often, however, I see businesses lobbying government to kill off the competition.

In the latest example, the Las Vegas City Council is mulling protecting Downtown brick-and-mortar restaurants from their wily new competitors: food trucks. As my Las Vegas Sun colleague Joe Schoenmann reported recently, the owner of Uncle Joe’s Pizza on Fremont East was outraged that “there, in front of his pizza joint, was parked a food truck. And it was selling pizza, no less.”

How dare they?! Next thing you know, someone is going to open a pizzeria next door! So now the City Council is considering an ordinance that would force food trucks to be parked at least 300 feet from an established restaurant—nearly the distance from home plate to the right field wall in Yankee Stadium—and operate there for just four hours in a 24-hour time period.

The proposed rule is ironic because the city’s decision to do away with minimum distances between taverns in the Fremont East Entertainment District is what led to the boomlet of this area in the first place. The food truck ordinance will be considered by the City Council on August 15. Show up and tell them to back off.

It’s perfectly reasonable that food trucks should live by the same rules as brick-and-mortar restaurants when it comes to health and safety codes and relevant taxes and parking regulations. But some restaurant owners are complaining that food trucks pay no rent or property taxes. Sorry, but it’s called innovation. If a restaurant invented a way to serve more diners in less time, or a cooking method that surpassed all others, would we ban the innovation to “protect” existing restaurants? To protect Microsoft, should we have prevented smartphones?

How far would I get with the City Council if I went to them and said it’s just not fair that news websites and blogs aren’t required to have printing presses or newsrooms, so we shouldn’t allow them within 100 miles of a brick-and-mortar newspaper? How quickly would we laugh someone out of the room if they said, “We’ve got to protect our newspapers.”

But here’s Councilman Bob Coffin, to my colleague Schoenmann: “We’ve got to protect our restaurants.”

Here’s an idea: Why not prevent any new restaurants from opening Downtown? That way, existing eateries won’t have to worry about competition. Sounds great, right?

I don’t envy the restaurateurs, who work in a brutally competitive environment, but that’s a good thing for consumers. It raises the game of restaurants and forces them to keep their costs down. In fact, that’s what Dan Coughlin, owner of Le Thai, recently told me when I asked him about new brick-and-mortar restaurants opening: He says he’d welcome new entrants because they’ll keep him on his toes and improve the Downtown experience.

Alex Epstein, executive vice president of El Cortez, also gets it. El Cortez created the Vegas StrEATs monthly food truck festival at Jackie Gaughan Plaza, knowing it would further energize Downtown. The food trucks force everyone to compete, and they bring real energy to the food scene.

This, by the way, is not a Las Vegas story. Food trucks—from simple burgers and barbecue to gourmet fare—are thriving all over the country, especially in great food cities. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out earlier this year, wherever food trucks are thriving, there’s always a burst of lobbying from brick-and-mortar restaurants trying to shut them down. California Assemblyman Bill Monning introduced a bill that would ban food trucks from operating within 1,500 feet of a school, which would have all but killed them in San Francisco. Chicago, Atlanta, San Jose and St. Louis all have their own ordinances meant to choke off this new competition.

As Yglesias notes: “The fact that business owners would prefer not to face competition is not a valid regulatory purpose.” Let the food trucks live.

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