This South Carolina City Is Crushing Its Own Food Truck Economy

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Greenville, South Carolina, is hemorrhaging food trucks—despite city efforts to promote itself as a food-truck friendly locale. And overbearing regulations are to blame.

This week, the Greenville News reported that rules intended “to make food trucks safer have left some parked for good.”

“Some” may be an understatement. According to the News, 22 of the 32 food trucks that were active in Greenville last year are no longer operating there or—in at least some cases—anywhere at all.

The new rules require food trucks to have exhaust hoods, automatic fire-suppression systems, and other tools and systems in place—along with passing annual fire inspections. Those rules have been in place statewide since the beginning of the year. 

While food truck owners aren’t complaining about the fire-code rules per se, the way the city has gone about implementing them has led some to suggest Greenville is treating them differently than it would brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Those complaints have merit. According to the News, other cities in the state have given trucks in their jurisdictions time to come into compliance with the law. But not Greenville, where the rules took effect on January 1.

One food truck owner told the News he only learned of the new fire-code requirements from the city in late November—just weeks before the rules were set to take effect.

“Say a major fire code [modification] came about for all restaurants, you can’t tell me they would have done this the same way to every restaurant in the city limits of Greenville,” Eric Edmondson, a truck owner, told the News.

Edmondson is right. But a closer look at the regulatory climate for food trucks in Greenville also suggests these new rules may be nothing more than the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s because the city already had some awful food-truck regulations in place. 

A 2014 Greenville News piece painted the city as patently unfriendly to the handful of food trucks operating there.

“Though [a] city ordinance passed last year was meant to give food trucks a solid place in downtown, many truck owners have found the restrictions actually hurt their business rather than helped,” the News reported then. “While the city has the biggest customer demand for food trucks, the cost to operate and restrictions on where trucks can operate hinder business, food truck owners say.”

The Greenville ordinance requires food trucks to operate in a limited number of designated public parking spots and to be at least 250 feet from each and every brick-and-mortar restaurant unless they get approval from those brick-and-mortar restaurants.

That latter requirement is a notorious food-truck killer.

In Chicago, the city’s infamous ban on food trucks operating within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant has helped cause the number of trucks operating in the city to fall by half.

Like Chicago lawmakers, who baldly protect the city’s powerful restaurant interests for no legitimate moral, health, or safety reasons, Greenville’s city council has sought to “balance concerns from restaurant owners,” the News reports. This purported “balance,” as it always does, protects brick-and-mortar restaurants and their landlords while harming food trucks and consumers.

“Our primary goal was to develop a plan whereby existing restaurants can continue to be successful, not feel threatened by food trucks, and introduce the growing food truck industry to Greenville in a profound and meaningful way,” then-Mayor pro tem David Sudduth told WYFF in 2013.  

When a city has as its “primary goal” to regulate one industry in order to protect another, competing industry, nothing good—nevermind profound or meaningful—will result.

In a piece last week on the purportedly welcoming business climate in Greenville, The New York Times discussed how the city’s successful pitch to larger businesses—including automaker BMW—centered on the city’s status as “a cheap, practical place to do business.” That same piece details how Greenville is home to many of the “the hallmarks of a thriving city[,] like food trucks.”

If food trucks are a hallmark of a thriving city—and I also think they are—then impractical city regulations have ensured Greenville thrives a little less every day.

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