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Food Trucks Mon Apr 23 2012
I have a recurring dream that resembles the Boston Tea Party. But instead of a group of colonists throwing bags of tea into the Boston Harbor, a group of restaurant owners are attacking a food truck, and throwing out cupcakes and pork belly tacos into the Chicago River while Glenn Keefer chuckles wickedly as he fires up his grill. In my dream, I wake up in that same food truck to a swarm of aldermen coming at me, their mouths twisting into a contorted shape, the words "200 feet" slowly coming out like a scene from The Goonies. I quickly toss out a foiled-wrapped sandwich to a guy dressed in a suit before I speed off, Tweeting my location. When I arrive, instead of my usual lunch crowd I'm met by Mayor Rahm, dressed in a tutu and pink tights, who politely hands me a ticket for "premeditated-violation" while Tom Tunney casually munches on a cinnamon roll the size of my head. "Want a bite?" he asks.
It's hard to sit here and not satire the Chicago food truck saga -- for many people (ahem, brick and mortars) and those whose have large vehicle phobias, this is serious business. But as the only city that doesn't let food truckers cook on their trucks, yet claims a coveted space as a food mecca, it becomes kind of hard.
For those of you not familiar with the food truck saga, the story is as goes: it started with the Kogi Korean BBQ truck in LA back in 2008, and spread like wildfire through the country. (Note: I'm limiting this story to food trucks and not street food, which has been around for years). Chicagoans got on board as the recession sent would-be restaurant owners looking for cheaper options to operate food trucks. These new entrepreneurs would be meant with restrictions -- the largest one being not being able to cook on the darn thing. As consumer popularity grew and brick and mortars felt threatened, more and more restrictions started, like not being able to park more than 200 feet from a restaurant. And then it got real when Gaztro Wagon's Matt Maroni (one of the first food truck businesses) stepped up to champion a food truck movement with Alderman Scott Waguespack by submitting an ordinance to the City Council and starting the Food Truck Movement. Restaurant owners fought back, claiming unfair competition, and the Illinois Restaurant Association (tied to brick and mortars and the City Council of course) took the public health and safety platform; however, a recent Trib article found Association documents on food truck legislation were more concerned with restrictions and fees for trucks than day-old sour cream. Un-shockingly, the ordinance still sits in review -- by a committee chaired by an alderman who also owns a certain well-known restaurant of a Swedish persuasion.
Two years later, I'm sitting in a law school auditorium at the University of Chicago for the first ever Chicago Mobile Food Symposium hosted by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, to hear a panel of food truck thought leaders (Sean Basinski of NYC's Street Vendor Project and LA Food Policy Council member and lawyer Gregg Kettles) chefs (Justin Large of Big Star), and politicians (20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran) duke it out.
When you get a bunch of lawyers/law students, food truck supporters, chefs, and general foodies in a room for a symposium, themes like economic protectionism, constitutional rights, and special interest pop up. While the first panel focused on the economic impact and history of street food I was more interested in the second panel, which included Alderman Willie Cochran and Big Star's Justin Large (who by the way seems to be the new face of this movement after Matt Maroni's random disappearance as the forerunner; yes foodies, where did Matt go is right). This was sure to get good with the exact opponents from each side debating the panel question: Chicago, What's the hold up?
Cochran, a great storyteller and elegant speaker who I assume was only there from the city side because he is an avid food truck supporter, didn't outrightly say that the legislative hold-up had anything to do with "economic protectionism for brick and mortar restaurants," but instead made the position that the city wants the legislation to pass but that they just want "to make sure they do it right and do it incrementally," including that the cost of finding more health inspectors for new establishments is just not there. Depending on what side you're on, that could sound like the truth or an excuse.
Large, who represents the ironic dichotomy of both brick and mortar owner and food trucker--and equally as politically correct -- called opposition from the restaurants "ludicrous," and said that brick and mortars were just not interesting in having the conversation. At the end, just as the fire had been built and a revolution was on its way, Bert Gall, the senior attorney for IJC and an avid proponent of the little man, flouted the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment and said that sometimes "you just have to sue the bastards" for fairness.
Since you can't have a food truck symposium without food trucks, we all got to partake in a sampling of about 20 trucks lined up in the school parking lot after. It was obvious that what Kogi started in LA still prevails, as I couldn't get to the Duck and Roll truck, but I was able to get inside the Haute Sausage truck, operated by Rich Levy, who mused on how food would change if the food truck law did pass.
"First we could offer a fresher, more delicious product, and we could also manage our inventory better," he said, speaking to that fact that what's not sold from pre-packaged is thrown out or when business is good, food runs out. "I'd keep my same menu, but it would be better quality and a better experience. Overall, I'd be prouder of the cuisine...not that I'm not right now, but it doesn't travel as well." Whimsically, he added that current restrictions "[have] forced us to get creative, and you see a lot of trucks do interesting things." Examples of this are the Brown Bag Lunch Truck, which makes a deconstructed smoked sandwich and serves everything in Chinese food packaging. Joaquin Soler, who has done hard time in corporate foodservice, looks more like someone who should come out of an LA bar than a Chicago food truck (to be taken as a compliment); he designed his food truck business model around the regulations. Innovative, yes.
Long story short, in the battle of truck verses brick, a small group of those with a special interest are doing the best they can to fight the natural order of competition, free economy, and consumer demand by wrapping it up in veil of public health and safety. I understand the other side, and the other side has been my livelihood for the better half of my adult life, but at the end of the day it's classic Chicago politics, and we are simply not comparing apples to oranges. As everyone on the panel agreed, there's enough room in this city for both to coexist, and we have to wonder how long Chicago can sit on this fence when the rest of the country has jumped on board. I mean, when coverage of the city's backward policies make the Wall Street Journal, ludicrous is right.
With bigger things to worry about though, I sadly don't think any food truck will be firing up soon. Brick and mortars you can keep throwing your bricks, in the meantime, I'll keep enjoying my foil-wrapped, pre-packaged, how-do-you-taste-so-fresh food truck food.