On February 4, the day they were scheduled to talk about the possibility of reforming the city's mobile food vendor regulations, 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley kept Phillip Foss waiting at the entrance of her office for about an hour.
It wasn't that she wasn't interested in the chef's proposal to vitalize the city's street-food scene. But when Foss arrived she was making frantic phone calls to the city's health department, trying to stop inspectors from destroying thousands of dollars worth of fruit puree at West Town's Kitchen Chicago. Some of the shared commercial kitchen's clients—including Flora Lazar of Flora's Confections, who'd made the puree—sell their products at the Green City Market, which is in Daley's ward.
That incident, a result of the city's inconsistent interpretation of the kitchen's licensing requirements, was a nadir in its relationship with small food businesses, and underscored widely held suspicions in the food community that the city is at best clueless and at worst outright hostile to new business models.
Foss, the executive chef at the Palmer House Hilton's fine-dining restaurant, Lockwood, could see how his proposal might present a similar challenge to city regulators.
He'd developed it during a forced lull at work. In December Foss—whose acerbic and sometimes ribald wit can be sampled on his blog, the Pickled Tongue, and Twitter feed—had openly castigated a server on his Facebook page. The union that represents the Hilton's hotel workers complained to management, and the chef was given a one-week suspension from the restaurant.
"I had a couple of warnings," he says. "It was deserved, but it got me thinking, 'I got a family here. I better have a backup plan.' I didn't even know if I'd have a job at the end of the week."
He did have an idea for a fast-food concept—gourmet meatballs—and had already gone so far as to trademark a name, Meatyballs. He thought he could make a go of it as a food truck, but when he got a look at how prohibitive the city's municipal code is on the subject, he started cold-calling City Council members.
Food trucks and pushcarts aren't illegal in Chicago, but they're heavily restricted. You can't do any cooking, cutting, or food preparation of any kind on board: everything must be precooked and packaged in a licensed kitchen. You can't stop anywhere for more than two hours, and you can't sell anything after 10 PM. So while a handful of businesses like Edgewater's Vee-Vee's African Restaurant are able to operate trucks above the radar, serving prepackaged meals to cabbies and others on the go, others that prepare food onboard are doing it illegally.
A couple weeks ago Time Out Chicago reported on a food truck vendor, Troy Marcus Johnson, who was issued a restaurant license by a health department inspector for his food truck, Chicago All Fired Up. Johnson interpreted that as a license to cook onboard and sell fried chicken and rib tips outside various nightclubs after the 10 PM curfew. But the news of his operation seemed to take the city's health department and Department of Business Affairs and Licensing by surprise. At press time spokesman Tim Hadac said the health department is conducting a review of how Johnson got licensed in the first place and deciding what to do about him.
Could anyone else follow Johnson's lead and get a restaurant license for a food truck?
"I don't think so," said Hadac. "If you're clear about the fact that you're gonna be cooking on your truck—that's not something we would approve of. But that's not to say the law won't change."
In the past few years there's been an explosion of chef-driven food trucks all over the country. In New York, the La Cense Beef Burger Truck griddles patties made from grass-fed Black Angus cattle raised on its own Montana ranch. In Los Angeles, Kogi BBQ—the granddaddy of the food-truck movement—tweets the locations of its four trucks to followers willing to wait in long lines for calamari tacos and short-rib-kimchi quesadillas. Even cities smaller than Chicago, such as Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Austin, Texas, have food trucks. Earlier this month Minneapolis joined the club with the passage of a food-truck ordinance.
Their notable absence in Chicago isn't for lack of able-bodied entrepreneurs. You can't throw a soggy hot dog bun around here without hitting a chef who has a wild-eyed dream of escaping his hot, cramped restaurant kitchen for a hot, cramped food truck. Cary Taylor of the Southern, for instance, wants his own mac 'n' cheese mobile. But "there're a zillion other things that you could do, and it could bring a new culinary identity to Chicago," he says. "Think about a pierogi truck—that would be badass."
Former Alinea chef de cuisine Jeff Pikus, now at Perennial, returned from a trip to Vietnam last year with an ambitious plan for a multivehicle fleet serving banh mi, bao, and bun—Vietnamese sandwiches, buns, and rice noodles. "Confident that I had a fairly good idea," he e-mailed me, "I kept going, scouring the health department code; searching for a loophole, a way to circumvent the 'preprepared' and 'prepackaged' stipulation. I even considered revising my original plan to somehow fit within the law. Nothing really seemed to add up, and I set it aside."
Another chef, who wants to remain nameless, had a business plan, investors, a licensed kitchen for prep work, and a truck all lined up and ready to roll. He was even prepared to give notice at the internationally famous restaurant where he works. But he never pulled the trigger because he couldn't get a straight answer from the city about whether he'd be able to pull his idea off legally.
The only alderman who returned Foss's calls was Vi Daley. She took a look at the proposal he'd written and set up a meeting with two others, Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), and Tom Tunney (44th), along with Norma Reyes, commissioner of the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.