Tarpon Springs is our home and, by becoming small business owners, we hoped to make it an even better place to live. Unfortunately, our new business hasn’t been welcomed by the city and now we’re fighting to survive.
When Elijah lost his job as a chef in the middle of the pandemic, we hoped to get back on our feet by opening a food truck. But almost as soon as we opened Sol Burger and started serving at a local brewery, Tarpon Springs pulled the rug out from underneath us with a ban on food trucks downtown, a ban with a big loophole for restaurants. That was wrong and now we’re standing up for both our business and food truck entrepreneurs across the state.
The vision for Sol Burger was simple. We would make delicious burgers from locally sourced products: buns from a local bakery, lettuce grown on Florida farms and beef from Sunshine State cattle. Not only would our ingredients be fresh, but we would also be supporting the local economy.
You might think that Tarpon Springs would welcome our business. Food trucks provide customers with more food options. They bring more people to an area, benefitting neighboring businesses — even brick-and-mortar restaurants. And they improve the overall local economy.
For all these reasons and more, the Florida Legislature last year acted to prohibit cities from issuing blanket bans against food trucks. Tarpon Springs had such a ban, and with it gone, we planned to operate our new truck on private parking lots where we were invited by the owners. Breweries especially appreciate the opportunity to offer their customers convenient food options.
But some local restaurant owners opposed competition from food trucks. At their prompting, the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners banned all food trucks from the downtown area — except for food trucks owned and operated by restaurants. City Commissioner Connor Donovan expressly stated the ban’s purpose was to prohibit “unfair competition” to “neighboring restaurants.”
The city’s ban left us with nowhere in town to operate profitably. Our agreement with the local brewery was shattered. Another local property owner would like for us to serve lunch to people in the building she owns, but we can’t because of the city’s ban.
There is no justification for this ordinance other than just to protect restaurants from competition. It’s not government’s job to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. That choice belongs to consumers.
Tarpon Springs’ ban may comply with the new food truck law, but it violates something more important: the Florida Constitution. In Florida, the government cannot use the law to favor one group of businesses over another. Tarpon Springs cannot ban our food truck from downtown but then allow other favored businesses to operate their own food trucks there. This is why we’ve filed a lawsuit with the Institute for Justice, which has won similar lawsuits for other food truck owners across the country, including in Fort Pierce.
Life has been hard for many during this pandemic and especially those in the restaurant industry. Again, Tarpon Springs restaurants shouldn’t feel threatened by Sol Burger and other food trucks. Other Florida cities have learned that food trucks help to create vibrant downtowns that mean more business for everyone, including restaurants. The facts show that this type of ban hurts the very businesses that the commissioners claim to want to protect.
Suing the city we call home was not an easy step to take, but we believe that our fight will make Tarpon Springs a better place for everyone. If Tarpon Springs’ protectionism is left unchallenged, then it could spread across the state. Hopefully, our suit will ensure that many others will be able to start their climb into the food service industry with an affordable food truck.
Elijah and Ashley Durham own SOL Burger, a specialty burger truck specializing in locally sourced products. They operate SOL Burger throughout Pinellas County serving public events and private catering events.