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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lessons from the A-taco-lypse

Food trucks are a part of a broader pattern of disruptive micro-entrepreneurship.

Marco Gutierrez unknowingly gave the best pitch for liberty last week—and he did so only using five words. During an interview with MSNBC, the founder of Latinos for Trump warned that if his candidate didn’t win in November, there would be “taco trucks on every corner.”

This hypothetical taco truck bubble denotes another issue that is not being widely discussed.

Obviously, Gutierrez intended to rattle the cages of nativists left and right—one side to call him racist, while the other can only seem to muster up dystopian platitudes about being “invaded by illegal immigrants.”

But Gutierrez’s words backfired beautifully. Within seconds, #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner was trending, and a vocal (and wildly humorous) majority of Americans gave a collective thumbs up to this compelling vision for the future. Unsurprising to those who mocked Gutierrez, the idea of taco trucks on every corner is very appealing.

The most obvious issue raised by this conversation is immigration. However, this hypothetical taco truck bubble denotes another issue that is not being widely discussed: how local governments tend to restrict – rather than embrace – entrepreneurial trends, and unnecessarily insert themselves between consumers and businesses.

The “Roach Coach” Renaissance

Once derogatorily referred to as “roach coaches,” taco trucks have morphed into a diverse, eclectic, and highly profitable industry. In less than a decade, a growing army of foodie entrepreneurs – peddling mobile culinary treats once only available in traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants – have created an $800 million industry, and its popularity continues to grow by the day.

This revolutionary business model has been widely embraced by consumers worldwide.

We are, arguably, at our economy’s peak quantity of food trucks at this very moment. Yet, judging by the vociferous reaction to Gutierrez’s misguided “a-taco-lypse,” the current availability of food trucks isn’t enough; people are demanding more.

Food trucks are a part of a broader pattern of entrepreneurship that jettisons traditional institutions, skirts around bureaucratic oversight, and provides an in-demand service or product directly to a very eager consumer base. With the advent of Uber, AirBnB, and a number of other cutting-edge businesses, this revolutionary business model has been widely embraced by consumers worldwide.

Oddly enough, research indicates that these businesses produce a mass psychological perk as well, inspiring human engagement, promoting a broader sense of trust, and – in the words of NYU professor Arun Sundarajan – “reversing America’s decades-long slide into mass cynicism.” (This author in particular has discovered a direct correlation between his own happiness and proximity to tacos.)

Local Government’s Motto: “When in Doubt, Tax, Regulate, or Ban it”

Unfortunately, bypassing barriers of entry has produced unintended political costs on the backend. Political leaders and regulatory agencies are in a panic to retrofit existing policies that didn’t initially include these new businesses into their statutory calculations.

The result of this panic: heavy-handed and obtuse rules that seem to be more about maintaining economic control than safeguarding a public good. AirBnB has faced relentless backlash from a variety of municipalities who want to register hosts, set size requirements for each shared space, and even mandate business licenses for participants. New York is currently debating a hefty series of fines for AirBnB hosts who “illegally” advertise restricted types of properties for rent with contract agreements shorter than 30 days.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have both faced significant pushback from local governments and taxi unions, demonstrating an obvious incestuous relationship between the two entities. The most glaring example of this collusion came in the form a per-ride tax imposed in Massachusetts, where revenue extracted from the ride-sharing industry directly subsidizes the failing taxi industry’s efforts to innovate and implement their own ride-sharing technology.

These concerted efforts to rein in new companies highlight how “a very simple business model can become muddied when it meets real-world markets, and alters them,” writes Adam Chandler of The Atlantic.

Ordinances? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ordinances

The same applies to the food truck movement and how they have disrupted local municipalities’ grip on economic planning. For example, food trucks have recently become a hotbed issue in Chicago. In 2012, the city passed a series of restrictions on the food truck industry – from how big their vehicles could be to how long they could do business in one physical location. Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times and local news affiliate ABC7 released a “damning” report that found that food truck operators were typically in violation of these ordinances and oversight was lax. (They say it like these are bad things.)

Consumer behavior seems to support these maverick business practices.

However, what’s missing from the journalistic investigation is any discussion of an incurred damage or perceived social ill created by the food truck industry. Are people getting sick from the food truck cuisine? What damages are caused by food trucks that remain in the same spot for three or four hours at a time? Other than breaking capricious and unenforceable rules, the perceived “lawlessness” of the Chicago food trucks does not demonstrate a significant liability to public safety.

Global positioning devices are required on all Chicago food trucks, so local regulators can investigate operators who are violating the “two hour rule”, which mandates the food trucks cannot remain at the same physical location for this short and arbitrary timeframe. The Chicago Sun-Times/ABC7 report highlights the fact that many food trucks ignore the two-hour rule. The report quotes Emily Darland, a food truck owner in Chicago, who isn’t shy about her own brazen violation of this rule (and many others):

“Nobody moves after two hours,” Darland said. “No one does.”

“The people making the rules have no idea what it’s like to be out here in business.”

So where’s the crackdown on this food truck piracy? With so many food trucks in violation of the law, there must be good Samaritans snitching to local law enforcement about these lawless foodies, right? Not so much.

In fact, consumer behavior seems to support these maverick business practices. For example, to warrant an investigation by the City of Chicago, complaints must be filed before regulators can pull GPS data on specific operators who might be staying beyond their two-hour window. Mika Stambaugh, a spokeswoman for the Business Affairs Department of the city government that oversees these ordinances, states, “We haven’t received enough complaints warranting a GPS search.”

Food truck patrons apparently can’t talk on the phone with law enforcement when they are sporting a mouthful of savory Korean barbeque, Latin American paletas, deep-dish pizza, hot dogs with every imaginable garnishment, pretzel-bunned deli sandwich, or whatever unique food truck delicacy that are currently stuffing their mouths with at the moment. (If that last sentence didn’t make you drool, there are also food trucks that specialize in kale.)

Envisioning the taco truck utopia elicits an age-old political motto: “think globally, act locally.” While supporting less restrictive immigration policies from their federal government, taco truck utopians must also turn their attention to the local ordinances that needlessly attempt (and often fail) to centrally plan industries that pose no immediate threat to the public at large. In other words, don’t tread on my taco trucks.

  • Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer with passions for liberty, skepticism, fatherhood, humor, and whiskey. His work has been published in Newsweek, Independent Voter Network, Fatherly, and other publications. When he's not writing, he splits his time between marketing consultation, outreach work for his local Libertarian Party affiliate, and enjoying his spare time with his wife and son. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.