Chicago bills itself as a culinary epicenter. That our city is home to modern culinary giants such as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Charlie Trotter lends a lot of weight to this claim.
But Chicago’s food scene lags far behind Los Angeles, New York, and other cities in one important way: food trucks. Chicago city policy hamstrings these fully functional gourmet kitchens on wheels in ways other major cities do not. Legal restrictions on food trucks today are hurting Chicago’s food entrepreneurs, foodies, and overall reputation.
Among the protectionist rules supported by “brick-and-mortar” restaurant owners, food trucks parked on public streets are not allowed to sell food before 10 AM or after 10 PM. This means selling breakfast and late-night snacks falls within the exclusive domain of restaurants. Additionally, food trucks may not prepare fresh meals, may not park in a single place for more than two hours, and must be at least 200 feet from any retail establishment that also sells food, including convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
Despite these restrictions, food trucks have become popular in recent years among hungry people looking to try something new. Trucks can be cute and pink (think cupcakes) or strictly utilitarian. Tacos are popular food truck fare, but trucks also serve unique menus including fresh donut-based creations and dishes made from organic and local ingredients.
Due to healthy customer demand, food trucks have also grown in popularity among young culinary entrepreneurs seeking the public exposure they need to later open their very own brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Take 26-year-old entrepreneur Gabriel Wiesen as a prime example. Wiesen launched Beavers Coffee & Donuts with a friend in January after their plans to open a pizza restaurant in Wicker Park fell through. He and his partner chose to use a food truck because of the flexibility it afforded their concept of serving fresh mini donuts, gourmet toppings, and imported coffee. Today their brightly colored truck can be found occupying private parking spaces in Chicago and public spaces throughout the northern suburbs.
Wiesen says food truck policies in the suburbs are much freer than those in Chicago. "Glenview and Evanston welcomed us with open arms," he says. “I was actually called by officials in Glenview and asked if I wanted to do business there."
Aside from laying out how close a truck may park to other businesses that sell food, Chicago policy prohibits any food preparation on a truck that is parked on a public street. Today, such food trucks may only sell food prepared elsewhere. Making food-to-order is not allowed.
So they could continue to cook donuts on board while in Chicago, Beavers Coffee & Donuts has become a licensed caterer. Wiesen now gets permission from private property owners to occupy their loading zones or parking lots.
Wiesen has forged many partnerships, including with restaurants, to be allowed to operate his business where his customers demand. He sees the food truck as a vital part of his career. “We’re hoping to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant,” says Wiesen. “There are several other companies that have grown after being based on food trucks. For example, 5411 Empanadas is opening a storefront on Clark now.”
Food trucks aren’t just for new entrants into the food service business. Chef Justin Large of Big Star, a popular restaurant in Wicker Park, has made headlines after running afoul of food truck rules while serving made-to-order meals on a yellow truck called “Consuelo.” He argues the reason for the restrictions on food trucks is that restaurants see them as unjust competition.
“At first, everyone thought the health department didn’t want food trucks to exist, but you come to understand it’s ‘brick-and-mortar’ that is pushing back really hard against them,” Large explains. “They fear it’s going to be unjust competition, but that’s laughable because the food truck side is more than willing to compromise so everyone can be happy. Brick-and-mortar has zero desire to do that. They hope to either ignore food trucks or lobby the city to keep the restrictions.”
Large doesn’t believe a rule requiring food trucks to be a certain distance from restaurants is necessary. “I’m not interested in siphoning anyone else’s business,” Large says. “It’s a dumb business model if you park in front of another restaurant. You want to be your own business.”
But Glenn Keefer of Keefer’s Restaurant in River North doesn’t see all food truck operators playing nicely. Keefer says he’s already had to chase one food truck away several times when it parked too close to his establishment. He argues the police are slow to respond when a restaurateur reports a food truck violating the rules, and that food trucks create all sorts of messes, including leaving garbage on the street.
“We’ve got enforcement issues, sanitation issues, traffic issues, and fairness issues,” Keefer explains. “We pay $70,000 a year in property taxes to pay for the streets food trucks want to use.”
Keefer is a member of the Illinois Restaurant Association, a trade group advocating for restrictions on food trucks. He is an active member of the local restaurant community, and has been involved in many discussions on the topic with fellow restaurateurs, members of the city council, and food truck operators. He says food trucks are going to become a valuable part of the city’s food scene. But he wants the city to reform the food truck rules carefully so they are fair to the restaurants that pay high rents under long-term contracts. He also wants reforms to avoid increasing city costs on cleanup and law enforcement.
“Assign parking spaces,” he suggests as one possible reform. “Maybe parking spot number four is on Michigan Avenue. It’s the best spot you can have, and you’re going to be busy all day. Maybe, after being on spot number four five times, you’ve got to go to spot 17, which is down at 47th and Halsted.”
The intersection of 47th and Halsted is far from the foot traffic of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, and has a very different restaurant scene. “The city is worried about underserved areas,” Keefer explains. “In order to get the good spots, maybe you need to help out.”
But having a bureaucrat designate where food trucks will conduct business on any given day doesn’t sound like a good way to serve customers. One of the main benefits of food trucks is they can go where there is business to be had. Keefer’s suggestion would potentially divert food trucks from their customers on some days to only then be allowed to return to them on others.
Some food entrepreneurs actually aim to serve communities off the beaten path. Samm Petrichos owns Spice! Spice! currently operates out of a tent at the 61st Street Market on Saturday mornings. There, Petrichos makes fresh cuisine that fuses Mediterranean with Latin American flavors and ingredients, 80 percent of which are sourced locally. He also teaches young people how to cook through a program called Experimental Station.
Petrichos wants to have a food truck eventually, but he is leaning toward basing his business from an eco-friendly food cart in the near term.
“I’ve been thinking about a cart a bit more because the trucks cost a lot to fill with gas and to maintain,” Petrichos says. “I’d like to make mine a bit more sustainable.”
The problem for Petrichos is that the same mobile vending rules that apply to food trucks also apply to food carts, which are either foot- or bike-powered.
As for the suggestion that he prepare his cuisine off-site and bring it to customers by cart, Petrichos doesn’t think that’s the best way to win return customers. “If you’re selling food that’s an hour and a half or two hours old, that doesn’t reflect the best on your business,” he says.
Petrichos will be among several mobile food vendors speaking at a symposium on food trucks at the University of Chicago on April 14th. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, will host the event, which will feature discussion on the challenges food truck operators face as well as possible reforms. The “My Streets, My Eats” event will also feature nearly 20 local food trucks on-site from which attendees may sample cuisine.
Beth Kregor is the director of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which is hosting the event. She says there are sensible reforms Chicago should take to permit innovative food truck entrepreneurs to break into the city’s highly competitive food service market.
“The city should allow food preparation on board trucks, requiring them to meet the same health and safety standards as restaurants,” Kregor suggests. “Trucks and street carts should be allowed to sell food during the same hours as restaurants, and they should be able to operate throughout the city.”
“Now, trucks and carts are essentially blocked out of the Loop and other popular business strips entirely,” Kregor says. “They’re kept out of places with the most foot traffic and where they’re most likely to find customers.”
The discussion now is not about the decisions restaurateurs made yesterday, but how they will adapt to a changing food environment, one in which customers expect to be able to buy gourmet foods in popular areas without having to go to a restaurant. It is possible to write rules that will treat both mobile food vendors and stationary restaurants equally on those things they have in common. Food trucks and restaurants should both be subject to the same health and safety rules. But only restaurants have dining rooms subject to fire codes, while only food trucks can meet engine emission requirements.
Balancing the interests of long-standing community members with new entrants is what good public policy is all about. All reforms must be considered in the light of how they will affect everyone over the long term instead of how they will affect specific groups in the short term.
Liberalizing food truck rules in Chicago will begin a renaissance of new food offerings. It will also require restaurants to compete for customers in new ways. Food trucks will need to respond in kind as competition heats up. All of this is good news for the food-eating public.
“This is America. It’s a free market,” says donut-maker Gabriel Wiesen. “We’re supposed to compete with each other legally. The city needs to find a way for us to work together.”
Indeed, city officials are now working on a plan for food carts, which is expected by summertime. But the fate of food trucks should not only be up to city officials and trade group lobbyists, but all hungry Chicagoans who dream of seeing their city crowned someday as the true culinary capital of the country.
Filed under: Trade
Tags: beavers coffee and donuts, beth kregor, blue star, Consuela, entrepreneurship, food carts, food trucks, gabriel wiesen, glenn keefer, ij, ij clinic, illinois restaurant association, institute for justice, justin large, keefer's, protectionism, push carts, samm petrichos, spice