MT. JULIET, Tenn. (WKRN) — Three Middle Tennessee food truck operators have filed a lawsuit against the city of Mt. Juliet over an ordinance they say discriminates against out-of-city food truck operators like themselves.
Filed by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the civil rights complaint argues a food truck ordinance passed by the city in July violates both the United States and Tennessee constitutions by depriving out-of-city food truck operators of “their right to earn a living and their right to equality before the law.”
The Beacon Center filed the suit on behalf of food trucks Chivanada, run by Daniel Yarzagaray; Funk Seoul Brother, owned by William “B.J.” Lofback; and Mikey’s Pizza, owned by Eileen and Michael Maltese. All three food trucks are frequently operated in Middle Tennessee cities, including Mt. Juliet.
“The ordinance punishes food truck operators from outside the city for the illegitimate reason of protecting in-city residents from competition and has nothing to do with legitimate health and safety concerns,” the Beacon Center said in a statement on the suit.
The ordinance in question requires any food truck not originating from Mt. Juliet to pay a $100-per-day permit fee in order to do business in the Mt. Juliet city limits. Food trucks from Mt. Juliet, however, are only required to pay $100 per year in an annual fee. That $100-per-day fee is “prohibitively expensive” for any outside food truck to earn a living, the suit claims.
Yarzagaray and Lofback are both Nashville residents, while the Malteses are College Grove residents, meaning all must pay $100 per day in permits to operate in Mt. Juliet.
“Mt. Juliet’s discrimination against food trucks from outside the city is unfair and unconstitutional,” said Beacon Director of Legal Affairs Wen Fa said. “Outside of the startling difference between paying $100 per day as an out-of-city resident compared to just $100 per year for city residents, it becomes even more appalling when you realize what these food truck operators did for Mt. Juliet residents in their time of need. Despite stepping up to help Mt. Juliet after the tornado, food trucks like Funk Seoul Brother and Chivanada are now being punished by Mt. Juliet’s protectionist food truck law. This double standard needs to end and if we are victorious, every food truck operator in the state will be treated equally under the law.”
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When devastating tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee in 2020, Lofback and other food truck operators from around the area “rallied” in the city, providing food free of charge to residents who’d lost their homes, the suit notes, and Mt. Juliet waived its food truck restrictions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 in order to provide residents with “a safe alternative to restaurants.”
Prior to 2020, Mt. Juliet reportedly only allowed food trucks to operate if they received a temporary event permit, which allowed them to come no more than six times a year. In 2020, the city waived its permitting requirements for food trucks, as they offered “a safe way to order food” when most sit-down restaurants were closed during the pandemic and after a tornado struck the area.
In April of 2020, the city reinstated the food truck permitting process, citing the need to protect local restaurants that were opening back up for in-person dining.
Then in early 2023, the suit states, the city adopted a pilot program to allow food trucks to return to the city more frequently, which was adopted fully by ordinance in July. The program went into effect Aug. 15. The ordinance states food trucks must obtain a “mobile food vendor” permit from the city to operate. The permit costs $100 per day for food trucks but carries an exemption for in-city food trucks.
By imposing the daily fee onto out-of-city food truck operators, the Beacon Center says Mt. Juliet is arbitrarily denying out-of-city food trucks the ability to operate in the city in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a similar provision in the Tennessee Constitution. Additionally, the suit claims the provision violates the “Law of the Land” Clause in the Tennessee Constitution.
“The out-of-city food truck fee serves only the illegitimate goal of protecting businesses based in Mt. Juliet from competition,” they say in the complaint. “By enforcing this requirement, Mt. Juliet, acting under color of law, is irrationally and arbitrarily discriminating against Plaintiffs in favor of Mt. Juliet-based businesses and therefore denies Plaintiffs their right to equal protection of the laws.”
The suit asks the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to enjoin the city from enforcing the ordinance and declare the ordinance unconstitutional.
When asked for comment by News 2, a spokesperson for the City of Mt. Juliet said it does not comment on pending litigation.