Tear down Nebraska food truck roadblocks

February 21, 2022 4:00 am

Cars wait for their fare being prepared in a food truck near 48th and Q Streets in Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examine)

Customers come from miles away when Patrick McClure rolls into town with his food cart and starts grilling. His one-man operation, Sprocket’s Famous Freedom Dogs, covers Nebraska from a centralized base in Valley County.

The menu includes quarter-pound all-beef wieners and 25 custom toppings, including a signature Coney sauce, which keeps the crowds coming back. Yet some jurisdictions block entrepreneurs like McClure with regulatory roadblocks that vary across the state.

Food truckers face one set of rules in Douglas County when they try to enter Omaha. They face another set of rules in Lancaster County when they try to enter Lincoln. And they face a third set of rules in Hall County when they try to enter Grand Island. Meanwhile, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture imposes a fourth set of rules for counties outside Douglas, Lancaster and Hall Counties.

Food truck doing business along Omaha’s South 24th Street corridor (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Besides wasting time, many of the requirements are redundant and expensive. Essentially, every jurisdiction operates a tollbooth that singles out food truckers for special treatment. Plumbers, landscapers, electricians, hairstylists and other mobile business owners can cross county lines without hassle. But food truck owners must stop and pay.

“I have yet to find any other industry that is charged a fee for coming into town and working,” McClure says.

Bill would simplify regulations

The costs add up for McClure, who copes by avoiding certain parts of Nebraska altogether. The no-go zones even include Valley County, where McClure prepares sauces and cleans dishes at a brick-and-mortar commissary in Ord.

McClure would like to serve his own community, but high fees force him to look elsewhere for customers. “I’m trying to keep my products affordable for everybody,” he says.

Fortunately, state lawmakers have a chance to intervene with Nebraska Legislative Bill 584. The measure, supported by the Platte Institute in Omaha, would allow food truckers to operate anywhere in Nebraska with just one permit. Street vendors still would need to pass annual inspections and pay fees — but not multiple times in multiple jurisdictions.

The measure would benefit everyone, including brick-and-mortar restaurant owners who sometimes see food trucks as a threat. Such opponents routinely claim that food truck growth forces restaurants out of business, but new research finds otherwise.

Food Truck Truth,” a report published Feb. 10, 2022, by the Institute for Justice, examines data from every U.S. county over a 12-year span and finds that food truck growth is not followed by brick-and-mortar restaurant decline. Specifically, the number of food trucks one year has no effect on the number of restaurants the next year in the same county. Both sectors generally grew over the report’s study period of 2005 to 2016.

McClure is not surprised. His experience shows positive results for all business owners when food trucks arrive in a community. Customers appreciate the variety, which attracts diners who normally might go elsewhere for service.

Incubators for entrepreneurs

Local officials who treat food truckers like the enemy miss the spillover effects. “They are denying themselves the chance to bring people in from neighboring communities to spend money,” McClure says. “People take their money to other towns for more food options.”

Food trucks, which cost less to start than many other types of businesses, benefit communities another way. Food trucks serve as incubators for entrepreneurs with dreams of expansion, which leads to many brick-and-mortar restaurants that otherwise would not exist.

Nebraska-based food trucks Muchachos and Mary Ellen’s recently opened brick-and-mortar restaurants in Lincoln. And Daga’s on Wheels opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Dakota City. All three expansions came during the COVID-19 pandemic, while small businesses generally struggled.

The growth also goes in the other direction. Brick-and-mortar restaurants often open food trucks to test new markets, try new products and build brand awareness. People who see the two business models as natural enemies miss the potential for complementary service.

“We in fact help brick-and-mortar restaurants, and they help us,” McClure says. To maximize the synergy, Nebraska food truck owners need freedom to travel. They should be able to cross county lines without facing redundant fees, forms and inspections.

Hot dogs dripping with coleslaw, onions, jalapeños and bacon bits can grease any economy. But only if diners have access.

Editor’s note: This commentary has been corrected to say that at the state level, the Department of Agriculture also regulates food trucks in most counties.

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Daryl James

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.

Kyle Sweetland

Kyle Sweetland is an Institute for Justice researcher and co-author of “Food Truck Truth.”