Cranston, RI: Food Truck Vendors Vow to Keep Fighting Proximity Ban

By     | Cranston Patch


Food truck owners who live or have their vehicles registered in Cranston are vowing to keep pressuring city officials and the City Council to re-think local ordinances that restrict food trucks near brick and mortar restaurants.

Eric Weiner, owner of Food Trucks In — a food truck tracking site — said last week’s vote by the City Council to restrict food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of restaurants is “shameful.”

“As someone who lives in Cranston and owns two pieces of property in Cranston, I’m embarrassed,” Weiner said. “If you look at the number of food truck operators who live in Cranston and keep their trucks registered in Cranston — it’s pretty ridiculous.”

Weiner has some lawyers on his side.

Christina Walsh, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, recently sent a letter to Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung urging him to veto the City Council’s ordinance restricting food trucks from 1,000 feet of standalone restaurants.

Walsh said similar laws have been challenged across the county and courts have repeatedly sided with food trucks.

In nearly every case, the restrictions were deemed unconstitutional and “restrict vendors’ right to economic liberty as protected by the 14th Amendment,” Walsh wrote.

Cranston’s law is the largest enforced “proximity restriction” in the country and is very similar to a law passed in El Paso, Texas, which was repealed.

“And just like El Paso’s proximity restriction, Section A is unconstitutional because its purpose, to protect established brick-and-mortar restaurants from competition, is an illegitimate use of government power,” Walsh said.

Weiner notes that almost every food truck operator in Rhode Island shops at Restaurant Depot in Cranston. And since many live in Cranston and register their trucks here, the city is already reaping the benefits of the growing industry through sales, motor vehicle and property taxes.

Vendors are also irked by a stipulation that requires them to pay about $1 per day (or $100 every 100 days) because under the ordinance, food trucks qualify as temporary structures much like an outdoor tent in a parking lot outside a store.

For a business owner looking at tight margins, paying for a business license, plus the temporary structure fee makes Cranston an unwelcome place to do business. The end result is less food options for locals and more tax revenue for neighboring cities, Weiner said.

And the law is unclear about existing businesses with trucks like Del’s Lemonade, or companies that park trucks — not necessarily food trucks — outside their businesses. Are those temporary structures? What about the lunch delivery services that stop by construction sites, car dealerships and other Cranston businesses with workers who would rather grab a bite from the lunch guy than spend 45 minutes driving to and from a restaurant? Under the ordinance, they seem to be no different that food trucks.

“Who is going to police all this?” Weiner asked.

Food truck owners say they just want to get a fair shake and offer Cranston residents and restaurant-goers a chance to take part in the growing industry. And there are many vacant buildings across the city that could host food truck nights, bringing some revenue to landlords, showcasing properties that might otherwise go unnoticed and revitalize areas that need a boost.

Weiner said the business district off Natick Avenue is a prime example. There, the owner of Lang’s Bowlarama wants to have a food truck night with trucks lining up in his parking lot — even as Lang sells food out of his business.

“Lang sees enough value and doesn’t mind competing with his kitchen,” Weiner said.

Another business that would host food trucks but can’t under the ordinance is Taco on Cranston Street. There, owner John Hazen White Jr. said he’s interested in hosting trucks for his many employees.

“[Hazen White Jr.] who loves to do new, innovative things. . . isn’t going to do it now,” Weiner said.

And the city is missing out in other ways, Weiner said. What happens when a big food truck operator is looking for a garage to store multiple trucks, train employees and maintain business operations? They won’t be shopping for real estate in Cranston.

And then there’s the strange nuances of the law, such as what the owners of Poco Loco on Broad Street in Edgewood are facing. That restaurant began as a food truck and built a reputation for good food that way. Their success led to the opening of a brick and mortar restaurant here in Cranston. But under the current law, Poco Loco can’t operate their truck outside their own restaurant. Drive about a mile north and the restriction is gone.

During a telephone interview, Weiner said an e-mail just arrived in his inbox. It was from a student at Johnston and Wales, asking Weiner to coax some of the food trucks that have teamed up for events in Providence to stop by the campus between 5 and 6 p.m. because students there “are sick of Subway.”

“People want options,” Weiner said.

Fung did not veto the council’s ordinance, nor did he sign it — an indication he was unwilling to expend political capital on the issue.

But that doesn’t mean the issue is over. City officials and council members said they’re considering revising the ordinance a bit. And last night, when asked on Twitter if the food truck issue will be revisited, Councilman Don Botts, who was not at last week’s City Council meeting, had an answer.

“(shakes magic 8 ball) signs point to yes,” Botts said.