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OPINION - Competition in the streets

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) “I own a restaurant. The food arrives at 7am, and I’m working in the kitchen by 8 so we can open for the lunch crowd. Many nights I’m here until the early morning cleaning dishes and sweeping floors. Long hours. Lots of competition. I pay prep cooks and waiters, and I need to make my rent each month and cover expenses that keep growing and growing…”

You can imagine a restaurant owner having this conversation with the Mayor or a member of the City Council.

“And then this fat guy shows up in a rainbow-colored sombrero with a push cart selling Mexican food on the street. He has no overhead, no bills to pay, pays no property taxes, and gets to steal my customers.”

The proper answer is “and, so what…” That is, if you believe in competition and free markets.

After all, the restaurant owner can’t control if another eatery opens up on the next block. He’d have to compete to hold onto his customers.

But city leaders are ready to snap to attention and offer an anti-competitive ordinance. Push carts and street venders will be regulated. Licenses will be juried. Licenses will be limited and tightly controlled. (Right now there are only two street vendors in Wausau.) And the most onerous rule of all: street vendors would have to be 75-feet away from brick-and-mortar competitors. 75-feet guarantees that there will be almost no street vendors; the far side of the 400-block might be the only place downtown where they’d be able to operate. 25-feet is being proposed as the more-reasonable alternative. It allows vendors to operate in areas where people go to eat – but keeps them from setting up directly outside a restaurant’s door.

There is a proper role for government here. Of course food carts need to comply with the health code. And keeping large numbers of street-vendors from clogging sidewalks or blocking streets makes sense. But there’s a clear line between protecting public health and being anti-competitive.

A restaurant that fears a street vendor as a competitor probably isn’t a very good place to eat. A restaurant has many, many advantages – like tables... not to mention waiters, menu variety, ambiance, etc. People who buy lunch from a street vendor generally have to take it back to the office to eat. (Who wants to do that?!) But, wait a minute, the city puts out tables and chairs on the 400-block during the summer. Should they be taken away? We wouldn’t want to cart-vendor’s customers to have a place to sit and eat, would we?

Chris Conley
4.11.13