Chicago Food Truck Legislation: Breakthrough or Too Little Too Late?
It’s been a rocky road for Chicago’s food truck community over the past few years, with eager early pioneers of restaurants on wheels lobbying hard for on-board cooking legislation; overcoming the lack thereof to get rolling with pre-prepared food; and many eventually stalling out over complications including bureaucracy, steep costs, pushback from bricks-and-mortar restaurants, burdensome retrofitting of equipment and parking restrictions.
Last October, the City Council introduced a map of 23 designated food truck parking stands, but many find them overly remote and/or restrictive (trucks must park at least 200 feet from restaurants).
Aside from the parking problem, food truck activists lobbied for over two years for onboard cooking, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel eventually presenting a modified ordinance which passed in late July, 2012.
Since the legislation passed, over 100 trucks had applied by early January, 2013, but only one has received the MFP (mobile food preparer) license — and that by limiting the actual on-truck cooking. Dan Salls’ The Salsa Truck took a shortcut by outfitting his truck with an electric grill, avoiding the strict codes on gas lines and exhaust hoods. He remains open to embracing those enhancements down the road.
The Chicago Tribune quoted Rosemary Krimbel, head of the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, “This is just the beginning, but we’re excited to see our first MFP (mobile food preparer) hit the streets. We want potential food truck owners to know that we are here to help, including newly offered truck consultations with the fire and health departments to ease the licensing process. We want to see more food trucks serving Chicago.”
Eater Chicago covered the mixed reactions to the legislation’s passing among “truckers,” including two founding fathers of the movement who have moved on:
Phillip Foss, Chicago food truck pioneer and founder of the former Meatyballs Mobile, said, “Although a step in the right direction regarding being allowed to cook on trucks and the changes to late night vending, the changes aren’t going to make a difference if there is no place to park on account of still having to stay 200 feet away from any established restaurant. The food truck business is heavily reliant on foot traffic during the lunch hours, and there is still almost no place for a truck to set up shop.” (When the legislation passed, Foss tweeted, “This is a loss for food trucks in the costume of a win. Still nowhere to park.”)
Food truck founding father Matt Maroni (of the now-defunct Gaztro-Wagon truck) helped initiate the original food-truck legislation. Maroni, who along with 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack began the fight to get a new food truck law in place before selling his, thinks this law is a good thing.
Maroni explained that the 200-foot rule and GPS tracking were both in the original ordinance he and Waguespack introduced to the council, “so restaurants wouldn’t throw a fit, which they did.” He considers the passing of the law as baby steps in the right direction and an overall win.
“[The law] will grow and be amended, but it is a huge first step,” Maroni said. “This is Chicago politics. You can’t try to grab everything up front and be angry that all things weren’t passed right away. The first step took two and a half years. My goal was to get cooking on food trucks for all of Chicago. This is a process and a long one. We have to look at the big picture when tackling something like this. One step at a time.”
According to Food Truck Freak Alex Levine, whose website monitors daily movements of the trucks and general trends in the industry from a consumer’s point of view, the Chicago food-truck industry continues to grow in spite of the regulations greatly limiting their movements, threatened fines and calls for additional investments such as satellite tracking. “It’s a huge testimony to the strength and durability of these entrepreneurs,” she said.
Still, despite the increase in offerings, also Levine said public excitement over food trucks has been dampened due to the cooking and parking restrictions.
Are new regulations helping or hurting city’s food truck industry? WBEZ rides shotgun on the Tamale Spaceship to chronicle a day in the life of a Chicago food truck.
Chicago fans of the food truck can revive their enthusiasm this summer at Food Truck Social, a festival on wheels August 23-25 in the parking lot of Kendall College. Over 25,000 guests are expected.
Food truckers seeking to upgrade their payment systems can check out our January post on food truck POS systems.
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