A food truck in Tupelo whose work helps fund disaster relief efforts is expanding to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in town.

Jo’s Cafe, a food truck, opened about three years ago. The operation is a faith-based organization principally focused on providing disaster relief to those whose lives have been affected across the United States. Business has been good and they recently made the decision to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant not far from the corner of Gloster and Main Streets.

This is interesting, not in that a food truck is growing and needs to open a restaurant, but in that just two years the Tupelo city council tried to run food trucks out of town. Ironically, at the behest of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

For more than a year, the city of Tupelo debated food truck regulations. In the end, Tupelo did the right thing and never followed through on early regulatory proposals such as what streets you could be located or how far you must be from a brick-and-mortar restaurant. 

Why did Tupelo need the proposed regulations? Were people who visited food trucks becoming ill? Did they hate their food? Hardly. 

Tupelo Councilman Willie Jennings said, in proposing the regulations at the time, “I just want to make sure the established businesses are protected.” Another councilman, Markel Whittington, said brick-and-mortar restaurants have requested food truck regulations. While he didn’t feel food trucks posed a “threat” to those restaurants, he believed it was appropriate for government to act “on behalf of select business interests.” Hint: It’s not.

Councilman Mike Bryan lobbied for brick-and-mortar restaurant protections, such as a ban on major roads. “I feel like it is not fair to brick-and-mortar businesses to allow food trucks to park in front of their business,” Bryan said. Another councilman, Buddy Palmer, also indicated his support for a ban. “I will always be pro-downtown businesses over food trucks,” Palmer said. “I am for brick-and-mortar businesses much more than I am for food trucks.” Or you could just support new business coming to your city and letting consumers decide?

In Columbus, it wasn’t the government but the proprietor of a local CJ’s Pizza that called the owners of the shopping center where his restaurant is located and had a food truck removed from the parking lot. After all, it was too close to his establishment. “If you think you’re gonna park a food truck right next to my restaurant in the same parking lot and poach my customers then think again,” the rant read on Facebook.

This isn’t how business works. You can’t just run your competition out of town. You provide better food, better service, or a better price, preferably all three. And then the competition closes shop because they can’t survive. 

Food trucks are examples of entrepreneurs responding to market signals. In so doing, they are contributing to the local economy by serving a customer niche. Brick-and-mortar restaurant entrepreneurs can do the same, and many have. All of these entrepreneurs, new and old, are creating unique options and working to build a more diverse and appealing food marketplace in Tupelo, Columbus, or wherever they are located. In turn, this attracts more consumers to the downtown – creating a bigger, healthier and more prosperous local economy.

In a properly functioning economy in America, the success of a food company should be based on how good the food and service is; not on how well connected it is to the political class. In a system of capitalism, competitors respond to consumer trends with innovations and improved offerings, not by seeking government help to build a moat around their businesses. We should be encouraging entrepreneurs and risk-takers, not creating hurdles out of a misplaced sense of obligation to protect existing businesses.

It is not the role of government to protect any business, brick-and-mortar or otherwise, from competition. The free enterprise system operates correctly when consumer choice, not political blessing, is the basis of choosing the winners and losers. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, needless regulations only get in the way of consumer choice. That might be healthcare regulations restricting your access to telemedicine. Or your ability to choose what you would like to eat. 

Kudos to Tupelo for getting it right and congratulations to Jo’s Café. That should be our goal as a state. To see small businesses grow and get bigger. We would see this more often if only government wasn’t in the way.