Original article appeared in the Detroit News
Innovative businesses often face a variety of challenges starting out. This is the case in Michigan and around the country (stories and litigation are bubbling over, from Chicago's gourmet donut trucks to New Orleans' new-wave Latin American cuisine) in the form of mobile food vendors — often run by immigrants, young entrepreneurs and people forced out of bricks-and-mortar restaurants since the recession. Cities are scrambling to protect their profitable existing restaurants from "competition" through expensive licenses and location prohibitions on food trucks — leading to the sad, now-national case of a 13-year-old hot dog entrepreneur in Michigan.
In claustrophobic business environments, those who are creative will try and find ways to better their situation. In 13-year-old's case, he mowed lawns until he could afford to buy a hot dog cart. As his parents are both unemployed, his mother due to her epilepsy and his stepfather (who suffers from multiple sclerosis) due to recent layoffs, it was essential that the boy pitch in. After investigating permits and saving for equipment, Nathan was told on his first, proud day of business that despite the property owner permitting him to operate in his private parking lot, he was being shut down because he was violating the city's zoning ordinance.
The Holland mayor told the boy that the ordinance was to protect downtown restaurant owners, who asked that the "success of the downtown district not be infringed upon by those who don't share in the costs of maintaining the attractiveness of that space." The boy and his mother have moved into a homeless shelter due to depleted funds. His stepfather cannot join them due to his MS, which requires narcotic treatments not allowed in the shelter.
Repressing the human entrepreneurial spirit with restrictions and punishments provokes fear.
What will restaurants need protection from next? There's always popcorn in movie theaters, or vending machines, or even the restaurant next door. Michigan is not even the ideal environment for food truck vendors. Many of our cities are in financial decline and losing population. In the 2007 economic census, there were 16,781 restaurants and bars in Michigan, and just 48 "mobile food services."
Yet there are empty, cheap properties in our cities where restaurants can find it much better than they would find in many other states.
But rather than allow organic cooperation between citizens, we tolerate an environment where small business owners are beggars fighting for scraps.
It's as true now as it ever was. If de Tocqueville were still taught in public school history classes, perhaps we'd remember his warning: "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money."
Try explaining that to a 13-year-old boy.