- Paul John Higgins
Can I interest you in deliciousness?" Kyle Kelly calls to the infrequent passersby on the sidewalk next to his food truck, the Cajun Connoisseur. It's a cold morning in January, and most people appear uninterested in lingering outside any longer than necessary. Kelly is parked near Polk and Paulina in UIC's Medical District, in what the city has recently designated one of Chicago's 37 food truck stands—though it's not immediately apparent: there are no signs to identify the 40-foot zone, and his is the only truck parked along the stretch.
Those who pause for even a moment are treated to Kelly's well-practiced spiel, along with free samples of gumbo or lobster mac 'n' cheese. "I'm in the deliciousness business," he tells them. "Let me introduce you." Almost invariably, people try to walk away before tasting their samples. "Don't go!" Kelly cries. "I must see your face. This is what inspires me." He and his sister, Deanna Liberty, arrived at 10 AM to finish prepping shrimp and grits, jambalaya, and the fillings for a variety of po'boy sandwiches before lunch begins. Unlike most food trucks, which have only a tiny kitchen onboard, the Cajun Connoisseur is equipped with a full-size stove, refrigerator, and freezer, four sinks, plus a griddle, fryers, microwaves, and panini presses.
Kelly, 48, was born and raised in Englewood and now lives in Hyde Park. Prior to opening the Cajun Connoisseur in 2015, he worked in construction for 23 years. Discussing that career makes his habitual wide smile fade. "I was a laborer," he says. "My intentions were to make foreman, but they started moving me from one crew to the next to say that they had a minority [crew member] rather than hiring any more African-Americans." The company he worked for at the time had him training new hires but didn't want to make him foreman, he says. And Kelly adds that on multiple occasions at three different companies, when it came time for him to be promoted, he'd be let go instead. "They didn't tell me why. But to this day I know it was because of the color of my skin." As for what made him want to have his own business, he doesn't hesitate. "Racism. I don't believe in kissing nobody else's ass."
What Kelly lacks in formal training as a cook—his mother taught him—he makes up for in confidence. "The only thing the Cordon Bleu [cooking school] can teach you to do is how to make food look good," he says. "I'm the best cook in the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. I have stalkers." Indeed, some of the truck's visitors on this particular day turn out to be return customers who've looked up the truck's location on Twitter and Facebook or called Kelly's cell phone to ask where he'll be. Just recently, the Cajun Connoisseur placed second nationally in the poll-driven Cajun Food Truck of the Year award on the website mobile-cuisine.com.
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Cajun Connoisseur truck owner Kyle Kelly plans to open a brick-and-mortar location soon because he doesn't believe it's possible to survive as a food truck in Chicago without also doing catering or operating a storefront restaurant.
Currently, Kelly is in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar version of the Cajun Connoisseur. While he doesn't yet have a location locked down, he speaks with certainty of its eventual success. "I know that my company will be franchised," he says. "It'll hit all the surrounding states and then head west."
Kelly's plan to expand well beyond the mobile-food sphere may seem ambitious, but there's also a practical side to it: he doesn't believe it's possible to survive as a food truck in Chicago without also doing catering or operating a storefront restaurant. Winter is a difficult time for the trucks; fewer people on the street means fewer people buying his food. While Kelly says he can bring in $1,000 an hour at some summer festivals, during the winter it's likely to be closer to $1,500 to $2,000 a day. When business is good, Kelly needs a total of four people to run the truck and has to bring in $1,500 a day to cover expenses and payroll.
This winter was particularly difficult for Kelly: last fall the city dramatically increased enforcement of the burdensome rules that regulate how Chicago's 70 licensed food trucks operate. Those regulations, part of a 2012 ordinance that allows food trucks in Chicago to prepare food on board rather than serving only prepackaged items, prohibit the trucks from parking within 200 feet of any business that sells food (including convenience stores and pharmacies), and from remaining in the same spot for more than two hours. Parking violations range from $1,000 to $2,000 per infraction, whereas health code citations start at $200. The ordinance also mandates that trucks carry GPS units that allow the city to track their whereabouts. The time limit, Kelly says, makes it impossible for trucks like his that cook on board to sell food throughout the lunch rush; by the time he gets set up, he has only about an hour before he's legally required to leave the location. This winter he's been making $500 to $600 a day, and even after cutting his staff down to himself and his sister (whom he pays $10 an hour), is barely breaking even. Kelly doesn't pay himself a salary, but is hoping that once he opens a brick-and-mortar location his business will be profitable enough to make that possible.
—Gabriel Wiesen, owner of the Beavers Donuts food trucks and president of the Illinois Food Truck Association
The crackdown on mobile food purveyors such as Kelly came hard on the heels of a joint investigation in August of last year by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC-7 News, which reported that food truck owners were routinely violating parking restrictions and staying longer than two hours in one spot, and that they weren't being ticketed for these offenses. The Sun-Times followed up a few days later with a report that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had responded to that investigation by promising to "issue a blitzkrieg of citations and fines against food truck owners caught thumbing their noses at the city's much-ballyhooed ordinance." The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection jointly enforce the current laws, but CDOT doesn't keep track of whether traffic and parking citations are issued to food trucks or other vehicles, it said in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Reader.
BACP, however, does document tickets handed down to food truck operators, and it appears that Emanuel has been keeping his promise. Records show that, while there were 34 such citations issued in 2013, none were issued between October 2013 and August 2016. Between the comparatively short period of August 25, 2016 (the date the Sun-Times/ABC-7 investigation was published), and January 30, 2017 (the date of the Reader's FOIA request), 109 citations were issued. A BACP spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the dates during which no ticketing occurred "reflect the timeframe after the food truck ordinance took effect in 2013 and BACP adopted an enforcement approach that was designed to give the new businesses time to adapt to the rules hence no tickets." (In fact, the ordinance took effect in July 2012.) The department didn't respond to an e-mail asking whether enforcement of the rules began again as a direct response to the Sun-Times/ABC-7 report. The most common reasons for the citations were food truck operators' failure to display a current mobile food license, being illegally parked (whether in a tow zone, loading zone, or bus stop, too close to a crosswalk, or within 200 feet of restaurant entrance), or operating for more than two hours on the same block.
While chef-driven brick-and-mortar restaurants have turned Chicago into one of the nation's top dining destinations, food trucks in the area have been in steady decline since the ordinance regulating them went into effect. In 2012, 130 to 140 trucks were operating in Chicago, estimates Gabriel Wiesen, owner of the Beavers Donuts food trucks and president of the Illinois Food Truck Association, a community of food truck operators. The current numbers are closer to just 70 in the city, plus another 30-odd in the suburbs and the rest of Illinois. Very few of the trucks that were in business five years ago are still around: besides Beavers Donuts, Tamale Spaceship is, as far as Wiesen knows, the only truck from that era that's still active in the city. Veteran trucks Cupcakes for Courage and Taquero Fusion operate mainly in the suburbs, he says, and the Slide Ride still has a license but is mostly doing catering for the moment.
Stacked up against the food truck scenes in other U.S. cities, Chicago's appears moribund. In LA County there are currently 2,600 permits for food trucks; Minneapolis, where winters are harsher than they are in Chicago, has 80 to 90 trucks; and Washington, D.C., has 100, according to representatives of those cities' local food truck associations. Austin Public Health issued just over 1,250 mobile vending permits in Austin, Texas, and the rest of Travis County in 2016, according to a department representative. In Portland, Oregon, food trucks gather by the dozens in lots called "pods" outfitted with picnic tables and covered tents; at some you can even buy beer. The website Food Carts Portland, a guide to the local mobile food scene, estimates that the city has at least 500 trucks available "at any given time"; site founder Brett Burmeister recently said the total number is around 800.
"All those cities have their own issues," Wiesen says, "but you see stability and growth in the industry."
So why have food trucks in Chicago hit a wall? All of the operators and experts interviewed for this story cite the adverse effects the city's onerous regulations have had on current and would-be operators. According to Matt Geller, founder of the National Food Truck Association and CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, no major city but Chicago restricts where food trucks can park and how long they can remain in one place. "That's the only big city where that's happening," he says. "If I was a citizen in Chicago, I'd be appalled."
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Trucks outside the Chicago Smoke Kitchen, the city’s only dedicated food truck commissary, at Cermak and Throop
Chicago has a not-so-proud history of stifling mobile food. The concept predates the invention of automobiles. In the 19th century, chuck wagons used to feed cowboys on cattle drives and pushcarts peddled their wares in cities. "Roach coaches" have been selling cheap food at construction sites since the mid-20th century. The modern food truck phenomenon, though, dates back to 2008, its birth widely credited to LA's Kogi BBQ truck. By 2010 food trucks were well established in LA and New York and had started spreading to smaller cities. Chicago, though, still held the dubious distinction of being the only major city in the U.S. that didn't allow trucks to do any food preparation on board, including cutting or cooking ingredients; they could only sell food prepared and packaged in a commercial kitchen.
Two local chefs with separate food truck concepts—Phillip Foss and Matt Maroni—were leading the charge to change the legislation, as Mike Sula detailed in a Reader feature in April 2010. Meanwhile, several other chefs who would've liked to open trucks had put their plans on hold because of the existing limitations, they told Sula. Foss and Maroni went ahead with their projects (Meatyballs Mobile and Gaztro-Wagon, respectively) but both shut down before the food truck ordinance allowing trucks to prepare food on board finally passed in July 2012.
That law, while it represented a victory on one front, was widely denounced for the limitations it placed on the operation of food trucks—restrictions that appeared to be designed mainly to protect the interests of traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. (Sula wrote a blog post that called the ordinance "shitty," the libertarian magazine Reason published an article titled "Chicago's Disgusting New Food Truck Regulations," and the Chicago Tribune ran a highly critical op-ed piece.) Alderman Tom Tunney of the 44th Ward, a former chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association and proud owner of Ann Sather Restaurants, was then chairman of the City Council's Economic Development Committee, the body that reviewed the legislation. As the law was being developed in 2011, Tunney told the Sun-Times that he was determined to forge a compromise that "protects brick-and-mortar restaurants." With the legislation being shaped in no small part by Tunney—whose campaigns through the years have been consistently backed by donations from the Illinois Restaurant Association and the Illinois Restaurateurs political action committee, finance records show—it was hardly a surprise when the version of the ordinance that passed included the much-criticized two-hour and 200-foot rules, along with the GPS requirement. Less controversial parts of the law include a ban on parking in vacant lots (even if the landowner grants permission) and a requirement that the trucks operate out of a licensed shared kitchen or commissary.
Less than four months after the ordinance was approved, the nonprofit libertarian law firm Institute for Justice filed suit against the city on behalf of two Chicago food trucks, Schnitzel King (now defunct) and Cupcakes for Courage, arguing that the 200-foot rule and the GPS requirement were unconstitutional. In December of last year, Cook County circuit judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos ruled in favor of the city; the Sun-Times reported that she "agreed the [200-foot] rule rationally balances the needs of restaurants and food trucks," and stated that "the presence of a GPS device does not violate privacy nor does it amount to an unreasonable search." The case is currently under appeal in Cook County Circuit Court.
"I think it's funny that all this [controversy] came back up again years later, because [the city] never really resolved what was the problem to begin with," says Amy Le, founder and former head of the Illinois Food Truck Association, who operated the Vietnamese-inspired Duck N Roll truck from October 2011 until December 2012. "We told them, 'You're going to continue to give out more licenses, there's going to be nowhere for the trucks to park.' "
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Amy Le, founder and former president of the Illinois Food Truck Association and owner of the Loop lunch spots Saucy Porka and Spotted Monkey
When Le got behind the wheel of Duck N Roll, she estimates that there were only about seven other trucks in Chicago. A journalist by training, she was working in marketing and PR but dreamed of opening her own restaurant. She didn't have the money for a brick-and-mortar location, but a food truck was doable. "When I first started there was a lot of energy and curiosity among consumers towards food trucks in Chicago," she says. "People were superexcited." But within a week of opening, Le says, she got an $800 ticket for being parked 195 feet from a wine bar that happened to serve food. "Reality set in," she says.
As the number of food trucks in Chicago increased, Le realized that there wasn't much communication happening among the owners. Maroni had started a food truck association when he was operating the Gaztro-Wagon, but after he shut it down, Le says, the association died and nothing took its place. In December 2011, she worked with a representative of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce who'd been trying to do outreach for the food truck community to hold a meeting for owner- operators at the chamber's offices, she recalls. Two days before the meeting, she says she got a call from the representative saying the Chamber of Commerce wouldn't host it because the Illinois Restaurant Association was threatening to withdraw its support for the chamber if it did. (The IRA declined to comment on this allegation, and the Chamber of Commerce was not able to respond to a request for comment by press time.)
Le moved the meeting to the offices of Google (where she knew someone), which at that time happened to be located right above the River North steak house Keefer's. Glenn Keefer had written an op-ed in Crain's Chicago Business a couple months before the food truck ordinance passed, arguing that "unscrupulous truck operators" must be prevented from "parking in front of the highest-priced real estate in the city to siphon off customers headed to businesses paying property taxes, rent and fees for signs, loading zones, building permits." Running a food truck, Keefer asserted, amounts to piracy rather than entrepreneurship. He showed up to the meeting and sat in the front row glaring, Le says, but didn't cause problems.
The public response to Keefer's op-ed by some local restaurateurs was less than supportive. Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and Next, tweeted, "The Crain's op-ed from Keefers regarding Chicago food trucks is terrible and shows a complete lack of understanding." Patrick Sheerin, who at the time was about to open Trenchermen (recently renamed Trench) in Wicker Park, tweeted, "Food trucks can & should be part of a vibrant restaurant/culinary scene." And Kuma's Corner posted a link on its Facebook page to an Eater Chicago article about the response to Keefer's op-ed with the commentary, "Dear Everyone, Fuck this guy. Love, Anyone worth a shit in Chicago, the United States, this galaxy, or any other."
The food truck owners realized, Le says, that to succeed in their fight for legitimacy they needed to get the press involved. "A lot of violence was happening in Chicago," she says. "We said, 'Why is the city designating resources to ticketing a cupcake truck when they should be investigating crimes?' We were constantly out there interviewing and getting our message out to the media, and suddenly [the ticketing] stopped."
The other concession the city made was to add more downtown food truck stands—the designated areas where trucks are allowed to park. Because the Loop has such a high concentration of restaurants and convenience stores, there are almost no other legal parking spots that comply with the 200-foot rule. The Institute for Justice released a report last October titled "Opportunity Lost: How Chicago's food truck proximity ban hinders economic opportunity and stifles consumer choice," which analyzes the downtown parking restrictions that affect the mobile food industry. It shows that after eliminating curbside spots located within 200 feet of businesses that sell food, along with spaces that have other parking restrictions (loading zones, bus stops, et cetera), food trucks are legally allowed to operate on just 3 percent of the Loop's curbs. "The city's ban not only throttles this fledgling industry," the report concludes, "but it also limits the food options for hungry Chicagoans."
Officially, there are 37 food truck stands in Chicago, ten of them in the Loop; most have room enough for only two trucks to park at a time. Even in 2012, though, Le says, there were enough trucks that competition for those spots was fierce. "You had to get there early," she says. "The trucks were learning to game the system—they'd show up at 5 AM, park their cars in these spots, and then move their trucks in when it was time to serve."
While Duck N Roll got some good press, Le says that she wasn't making money because she couldn't find places to park that had enough foot traffic for her to turn a profit. Still apprehensive after her first ticket, she didn't want to risk getting another one. "That's probably why I went out of business, because I followed the rules," she says. "I was $20,000 in debt, and it was growing." But though the business went under, connections Le made while running it led to the opening of the two restaurants that she now owns: Saucy Porka and Spotted Monkey, both Latin-Asian fusion lunch spots in the financial district.
"Two years ago they put a food truck stand kitty corner to [Saucy Porka]," she says. "I was totally excited about it. It's kind of like seeing the fruition of your hard work, seeing those stands pop up there." Other restaurant owners in the area were less excited, though, and Le says that she watched as they started a petition to have the stand removed, which quickly succeeded; the city withdrew the designation after just two weeks. "The irony is that I didn't see a single sales number drop while the stand was there," she says.
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Lucha libre enthusiast Pepe Balanzar serves a customer of his Tamale Spaceship food truck.
Another great irony is that Chicago's restrictions on food trucks have very little to do with food safety. (The minimum fines for violating parking regulations are five times higher than the minimum penalty for a health code violation.) Nonetheless the average food truck gets about 15 inspections a year, Wiesen estimates. Trucks not only have to pay to get licensed for any city or suburb in which they're going to serve food, but are also required to attain temporary health permits for any special event where they're serving, each of which involves health and fire inspections. According to Wiesen, it's not financially feasible for trucks to survive without working events such as street festivals, music festivals, and sporting events. And despite Chicago's declining number of food trucks, there remain festivals dedicated to them, including the Pilsen Food Truck Social and the Chicago Food Truck Fest, both in June. The latter is not to be confused with the city's Food Truck Fest, which runs weekly at Daley Plaza and monthly at Pioneer Court from late March through mid-October, and is organized by the BACP, the very same department that enforces regulation of the trucks.
The laws in the food truck haven of LA, meanwhile, are limited to matters related to food safety—a feat that took some work, along with a series of lawsuits. Starting in 2010, Geller says, he and his association sued 13 cities in LA County over the course of three years, challenging any laws that didn't apply to public health or safety. They were victorious in each and every case. "You get somebody sick in Chicago, it's a $200 fine," Geller says. "You park too close to a restaurant, it's $1,000. Those restaurants' profits are more important than public health? The city of Chicago has said, 'We're going to protect brick-and-mortars.' Why is it that this particular thing needs to be protected? It's farcical. It's so outrageous."
"I think there's a small minority of restaurants downtown that are complaining [about food trucks]," Wiesen says. "They're people that are invested in real estate, not just restaurants. And they're vocal about their concerns."
Prominent opponents have included Tunney and Loop alderman Brendan Reilly (both declined multiple requests to comment on their opposition), along with Keefer, whose steak house closed in 2014 (if food trucks played a part, Keefer never mentioned it to the press). But the Illinois Restaurant Association was always the biggest lobbyist against mobile food, according to Wiesen: "The president [Sam Toia] said he'd destroy food trucks, they'd never be allowed in Chicago." Since the food truck ordinance passed in 2012, the IRA has softened its stance. Toia says that he now supports allowing food trucks to remain parked in the same spot for more than two hours, though he still believes the 200-foot rule should be preserved. And while he says there should be more food truck stands throughout the city, he thinks there are enough downtown and that any additional stands should be placed in other high-density areas. Toia dodged the question of whether restaurant owners have complained to him about food trucks. "The restaurant community is very close-knit, and everyone supports each other," he says. "I think restaurant owners feel that food trucks are part of the culinary scene and they should be part of the culinary scene."
Despite the softening attitudes of the IRA and other food truck opponents, operators who've moved to brick-and-mortar spots say they've observed that the landscape isn't getting any friendlier for mobile food. Last year Dan Salls shut down his roving Mexican street-food wagon the Salsa Truck, the first one licensed in Chicago to prepare food on board. His landlord had declined to renew the lease on the Garage, his West Loop lunch spot, which also served as the commissary for the Salsa Truck and several others. There Salls invited food trucks to park out front every day. "Just to prove a point," he says, "that it's stupid" to restrict where trucks can park. Salls recently opened Quiote, a Mexican restaurant and mezcal bar in Logan Square—but he still holds out hope that one day he'll be able to bring back the Salsa Truck.
"Right now, it's just too hard," he says, explaining that the only time a truck can sell enough to make a profit is during lunchtime—a sentiment also expressed by every other food truck owner interviewed. While some trucks serve breakfast and dinner or set up outside bars to lure the late-night crowd, operators say there's not much money to be made at those times. From "11:30 to 1:30, it's feast or famine. If you don't have a good spot, you might as well start burning all the food on your truck, because you're not going to sell it," Salls says. "It doesn't take very long to realize it's not a sustainable system. The consumer demand is there, but the status quo will kill the industry. The city says they champion small business. Food trucks should be a part of that, but they're just second-class citizens."
"It's getting tougher," says Manny Hernandez, who co-owns the longest-running food truck in the city. He and his business partner, Pepe Balanzar, launched Tamale Spaceship in January 2011 because they wanted a restaurant but couldn't get a loan. They've managed to survive six years, he says, by doing catering on the side and opening a storefront restaurant in Wicker Park in 2014. Because of the income from the restaurant, Hernandez was able to suspend operation of his food truck during the tougher winter months, but when the weather warms up the Tamale Spaceship will hit the streets again. Last fall, he says, the city inspected his truck every single day for a full month; he's not sure what to expect in the spring.
A native of Mexico City, Hernandez began his career in the industry as a dishwasher at the now defunct 50s-kitsch diner Ed Debevic's, then decided to focus on Mexican food and moved up to manager at Frontera Grill before starting Tamale Spaceship. He'd like to see more small culinary entrepreneurs follow his path to restaurant ownership, but the current regulations don't give him a lot of hope. When aspiring food truck owners contact Hernandez for advice, he says he can't honestly encourage them. "I'm pretty up-front. I let them know, like, 'If you have a real job, then don't quit it.'" He doesn't understand why Chicago is far less friendly to food trucks than other cities. "It works in New York. It works in LA. It works almost everywhere," Hernandez says. "Why are we stubborn enough to say no without even listening to each other, without seeing how we can take advantage of the situation and make it profitable for everybody?"
- Danielle A. Scruggs
- Denita Tittle, owner of Ms. Tittle’s Cupcakes, says that if she had to do things over she would never have launched her food truck.
Relief for food truck operators could be on the way, in the form of legislative amendments. First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno introduced a proposal to the City Council in December that would allow food trucks to remain parked in one spot for up to six hours. If it passes, he says, aldermen will have control over the regulations in their own wards. Those who oppose food trucks can keep the limit at two hours. Mayor Emanuel, who's often positioned himself as a small-business advocate, has apparently not yet decided whether to support the proposal; he told the Sun-Times in December that he needs to review it and hear what the "affected parties" have to say. The crackdown on food trucks that he ordered last year doesn't bode well, though.
Moreno, meanwhile, is wholly supportive of the trucks. To the argument that the presence of mobile food takes business away from traditional restaurants, he says, "It's a red herring. I've heard that many times, but I have yet to see any evidence, any study from other cities, where a food truck ordinance impacted the brick-and-mortar restaurants."
Food trucks offer chefs a more accessible entry point to the food industry, Moreno says. "We're looking at a national government that's trying to restrict immigrant rights. A lot of food trucks in Chicago are immigrant families that are starting up, and it's another way that they can make money and create jobs."
Some 80 percent of local food trucks are owned by minorities, Wiesen of the Illinois Food Truck Association estimates. But while mobile food represents a good opportunity to start a business without a lot of capital, he adds, it can be high risk as well. "The most vulnerable people in the industry are the ones that really bootstrapped, cashed in their life savings, and went all in. Those are the ones that are suffering the most. The city is telling them, this is a viable business for you. They're holding workshops and licensing more trucks. But they're not fulfilling their own obligations. There are supposed to be [at least] 32 designated food truck stands throughout the city, ten of them downtown. At my last count, there's six downtown, and [the other] four don't have signs or are completely inaccessible." (BACP didn't respond to a request for comment on Wiesen's critiques.)
Lack of available parking hurts Denita Tittle's food truck business on a daily basis. "If I get a good parking space, I can make $300 or $400 in a couple hours," says the proprietor of Ms. Tittle's Cupcakes. "If it's not good, I might not even make $50." She started out taking online orders for cupcakes from friends and acquaintances in 2011, after she retired from her job as a customer service supervisor, then launched her food truck in 2013. If she had to go back in time and do things over, though, Tittle says that she would never have started her truck. It's still not profitable, but she hasn't yet gotten back the investment she made in the truck itself, so she's still trying to make things work.
"It wears on you," Tittle says. "If it were more feasible, I would keep going. We are a business, we pay taxes, we hire people that pay taxes. The people that set up the rules and regulations, I think they did it not really knowing what it entails. It needs to be revisited."
Moreno has a similar view. "Anytime you have new legislation, it's probably going to need to be revised," he says. "There's unforeseen circumstances. At that time [when the food truck ordinance was passed], I don't believe that the [Illinois] Restaurant Association leadership was as amicable in working with it, more so was working against it. On their end it got better."
The city slapped Wiesen with more than $10,000 in tickets in 2016, and he saw the revenue of his Beavers Donuts trucks drop 30 to 40 percent, he says. "We used to joke that it's less of a risk to sell pot on the street than it is to sell food from a food truck. If you're caught with pot here, it's a couple-hundred-dollar fine and you can go on your way. With a food truck it's thousands of dollars, having to get an attorney." (In Chicago, being caught with up to ten grams of marijuana carries a fine of $100 to $200.)
John Levy, a board member of the National Food Truck Association and the founder and president of the Minnesota Food Truck Association, has plenty to say about restrictions on food trucks, in Chicago and beyond. His assessments frequently include such choice words as "stupid" and "ridiculous." "There is absolutely no basis in health or welfare to justify those kinds of restrictions," he says of Chicago's 200-foot and two-hour rules. "That's all ridiculous. What ends up happening is that city council people who are completely beholden to their local restaurants, because that's their tax-paying base, will attempt to disguise the ordinances they propose or oppose for competitive reasons as doing it for another reason, like general health and welfare and safety. It's a bunch of bullshit, the way they go about restricting what is obviously a service that consumers want. The constituencies of these city councils, we love the concept of food trucks—eating delicious, safe food for an inexpensive price. The only reason we're not able to do it more than we do is because of these stupid restrictions that are basically designed to be anticompetitive."
Levy, a lawyer by trade, started a food truck with celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern in Minneapolis in 2012; he closed it in 2015 but remains head of the Minnesota Food Truck Association. Minneapolis is somewhat unusual, he says, because the city's harsh winters led to the creation of the skyway—an eight-mile system of enclosed pedestrian bridges connecting the second and third floors of downtown buildings, making it possible to walk around without ever going outside. Among the businesses that have set up shop in the skyway are restaurants, bars, and fast-food joints, which tend to object to having their customers lured away by food trucks operating on the streets outside during the summer, Levy says. "They formed their own trade association called the Skyway Restaurant Group, organized specifically to mount a campaign to try to do something about the food trucks. Because they would be off 20 percent in gross revenues during the summer months to the food trucks. To which our response was, 'Well, step up your game, dude.' "
Levy believes that the skyway restaurants had become complacent in their food offerings because of a lack of competition. "The good chef-driven restaurants have never been against us," he says. "They don't feel threatened because they know they're good enough to hold their own regardless."
Free-market principles, not government regulation, make for a stronger food economy, says Geller of the National Food Truck Association. "I have seen food trucks put restaurants out of business—bad restaurants," he says. "They were replaced by better restaurants that drove the food trucks a few blocks away. Who wins? Consumers."
Despite the sudden increase in fines in the wake of the Sun-Times/ABC-7 investigation, Wiesen says he sees the crackdown as the start of a discussion that he hopes will lead to a change in Chicago's strict laws. "The Sun-Times piece, I'm 100 percent confident that it was a calculated maneuver by some group or political force," he says. "The ironic thing is that it started the conversation. We were struggling to get by even with the city's lax enforcement [before the investigation]. That opened up the dialogue and motivated people within our community to work with our city officials to change those rules. A lot of positive is coming out of this."
Levy, for one, isn't particularly sympathetic to the establishment forces trying to fend off a perceived threat. "What it all comes down to is, it's Blockbuster whining about Netflix," he says. "The food trucks see themselves as the next logical wave, and I think they're right. It's an amazing opportunity with a low barrier to entry to start a small business. You can create your restaurant on wheels for $50,000 to $60,000. You get a little slice of the American dream, pretty inexpensively." v