Posted: August 26, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
By: Robert Frommer and Melanie Benit
Small business is struggling in Prince George County, as it is across the country. In order to make it through this tough time, entrepreneurs like longtime resident Thomas Santy need flexibility to serve the public in new and innovative ways. The food truck ordinance passed by the County last week is a good start.
Tom Santy has over 20 years of experience in the food industry, and he wants to use that experience to open his own food-service business. Using his life’s savings, Tom recently purchased a fully self-contained food trailer. Although he operated the trailer as a mobile eatery, he wants to purchase an unused parcel of land where he can park and operate daily. Then, as the business grows, he intends to build a more traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant on that same parcel to better serve the community.
But Mr. Santy had to put his dreams on hold for months, causing financial stress and risking losing the parcel of land he hoped to buy. Why? Because of Prince George County’s outdated vending laws.
“I was only allowed to operate in industrial zoned areas, but that’s not where most customers are. They’re in commercial areas,” said Tom. “I couldn’t even cover the costs of operating much less feed my family. Plus, the pandemic shows how important my unique business model is with things like contactless food delivery. I can meet this need, if only given the chance.”
The County was already considering an update to the vending law to expand vending to commercially zoned areas; however, the proposed ordinance didn’t go far enough in really helping Mr. Santy and other innovative entrepreneurs like him. So Mr. Santy partnered with our organization, the Institute for Justice, to address his concerns.
At first, instead of the County finding ways to help him—instead of innovating—officials were saying no: Either fit into this mold or don’t operate. Mr. Santy was told to rip the wheels off his trailer, construct a slab on the property he still needed to purchase, and then apply for a $600 permit in the hope that he would get approved to operate as a pre-manufactured building.
Then, we had a breakthrough. After heartfelt public comment at last week’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting, the board voted to amend the ordinance, recognizing the hardship vendors like Mr. Santy faced and the economic benefits operable vending businesses would bring. Now, vendors can keep their mobile units on commercial property they own or have permission to use without having to move it each day. Not having to move a 20-foot-long, 13,000-pound trailer each evening allows Mr. Santy to meaningfully serve the community, provide for his family, and contribute to the local economy.
The fight for vending freedom isn’t over. There’s still work to be done to help vendors get their businesses off the ground, such as removing the 6-hour-operation limit. One consideration is to bring statewide reform through the Mobile Food Vendor Freedom Act which would streamline and simplify the licensing process for mobile vendors or service providers.
Of course, it shouldn’t have been this hard for a county resident to open a productive business on a parcel of vacant land, but we are nonetheless thankful to board members for making these changes that help small business in their time of need. In a few months, you can congratulate Tom on his new business, all while enjoying a delicious meal.
- Robert Frommer, senior attorney and director of the National Street Vending Initiative at the Institute for Justice and Melanie Benit, activism associate at the Institute for Justice