A Tale of Two Cities: Food Trucks in Chicago and in Cincinnati

A Tale of Two Cities: Food Trucks in Chicago and in Cincinnati

On a recent work trip to Cincinnati, I came across Jason Perkin’s food truck, Eat!, which has been trucking along Cincinnati streets since February 17. The food was fabulous. The scallops (yes, scallops….from a food truck!) were melt-in-your-mouth-tender, the bruschetta dish with diced tomatoes and chick peas was bursting with freshness, and the buckeyes (available in milk, dark, and white chocolate), made by Jason’s wife exclusively for Eat! were, according to my mother, the “best buckeyes” she’d ever had. Coming from my mother, who takes her chocolate very seriously, that’s a big deal.

Buckeyes from Eat!

The sad thing about all this: it would be illegal for Eat! to operate in Chicago.

Now, I love Cincinnati. It’s my hometown. But let’s face it, when it comes to food there’s not even a remote competition between Chicago and Cincinnati. Chicago is world renowned for its restaurants and cuisines. It is home to Alinea and Next’s Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, and Charlie Trotter (just to name a few). Cincinnati, despite a handful of truly solid restaurants, simply is not a foodie mecca anywhere close to on par with Chicago.

However, Chicago falls far behind Cincinnati when it comes to food trucks. For a variety of reasons that frankly fail to make any logical sense to me, fresh (i.e. cooked) meals cannot be prepared on trucks, only pre-packed food; no food can be sold before 10 am (goodbye breakfast service) or after 10 pm (so long late-night snack service); and a truck cannot stay in a single place for more than 2 hours. Fortunately, the Mayor recently introduced a new “mobile food” ordinance that, if passed, would permit cooking on trucks (at the cost of a potentially prohibitive $1,000 per license) and would do away with restrictions on when food could be sold, although where that food could be sold would depend on time.

Food trucks are a quintessential American small business. And small businesses, particularly in this downtrodden economy, make this country run. What’s more, the food truck movement is grass root, innovative, and, through its mobility, can access areas underserved (or not served at all) or without a diverse range of options. Government policy should help these small businesses, yet the kind of restrictions currently in place in Chicago only hinder. And why? Are we worried about food safety? Jason’s truck follows stringent food safety guidelines, to the point that Jason considers his first job as keeping customers healthy and his second as chef, and has a HACCP plan in place. Are we worried about unemployment? Jason now has 4 people working for Eat! Beyond that, Jason works his tail off and is damn good at what he does. Are we worried about our brick and mortar restaurants? That these restaurants pay rent – and tax on that rent – is nothing to take lightly. But is preventing trucks from cooking on board really the solution?

New business is good. Entrepreneurship is good. Business as usual is no longer going to cut it. Let’s give these dedicated, hardworking, entrepreneurs a fighting chance to make it. In the meantime, I’ll say something I never thought would be uttered from my lips: Chicago – look and see what Cincinnati is doing! Hopefully new, good legislation will be passed soon in Chicago.

And if you do find yourself in Cincinnati, you can find Eat! by following Jason at www.eatmobiledining.com.

(For more information on the Chicago food truck debate, see the thoughtful post by fellow Chicago Now blogger, Chicago Libertarian, Time to reform Chicago's awful food truck rules, and Louisa Chu’s report of the introduction of the Mayor's new ordinance at City Council).

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    I hope chicago and other cities make it easier for food trucks. I am originally from ohio also, and I am now in dallas. Dallas, and Ft. worth and local businesses welcome the food trucks. Ft worth has even created a food truck park. I hope to enjoy an authentic italian beef from a chicago food truck soon.
    http://gloriasrestaurantblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/foodtrucks-vs.html#more

  • In reply to Justin Kofron:

    Justin - Thanks for the comment. It's great to hear that in DFW the local businesses are welcoming the food trucks. If I'm ever in DFW, I'll definitely have to try the food truck park....and Gloria's!

  • Rachel: Enjoyed the Chicago-Cincinnati post, and totally support the food truck presence in both cities. It's an indicator of a thriving city. Check out my post at http://theessentialgarden.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/cincinnati-is-teaching-chicago-about-food-trucks/

  • In reply to linda naylor:

    Linda - Great post and thanks for the shout out! I think it's an excellent point that food trucks are an indicator of a thriving city. I'm cheering for both cities. As for public transportation, would love to see Amtrak options also connect the two!

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    Rachel - I have hopes Chicago will make the needed changes to their Food Truck scene! One point to add to your great article. In Cincinnati to be part of the city Food Truck program, each operator does pay that same $1,000 fee/yearly which is being proposed in Chicago. While is seems high, It's pretty typical really. I think it serves a purpose..

  • In reply to BetsE:

    BetsE, I didn't know that. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Hi Rachel! I loved this article! Particularly because I am from Chicago but live in Cincinnati.

    I have a question for you that I'm wondering if you have heard anything about that is somewhat related. I want to start a mobile fashion truck that would operate in Chicago. It's similar to a food truck in the size, but obviously instead of food being served, it would be fashion clothing/accessory. It's an emerging trend in other cities and was curious if you anything about permits allowing for such trucks in Chicago?

    Any insight would be great!

    Thanks!

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