Food trucks in Chicago in legal twilight zone

By Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal
Posted Dec. 13, 2010 at 5:53 a.m.

Food trucks — essentially restaurants on wheels — have taken off in cities such as Los Angeles and New York, spurred by the weak economy, trendy fare and the proliferation of social media, like Twitter. But in Chicago, one of the nation’s most progressive culinary cities, the trucks are held back by restrictive rules and operate in a legal twilight zone.

Tiffany Kurtz was cruising the downtown streets here in her powder-blue van when a group of women flagged her down. She punched her hazard lights on, pulled into a loading zone and began selling her wares. Within minutes, a police officer rolled up with his lights flashing.

“We’re stopping the sale of cupcakes,” she recalls him saying, before he handed her a ticket and shooed her away.

After receiving a $275 ticket, Kurtz, a 41-year-old entrepreneur who quit her corporate marketing job recently to launch Flirty Cupcakes, told her fans to meet her in the alley. “It was like a drug deal,” she says. “I said, ‘Just take them and run.”‘

Unlike other cities, where chefs are free to actually cook inside their trucks, Chicago chefs can’t unwrap or alter the food in any way once it’s on a truck. And food trucks aren’t allowed to park within 200 feet of a restaurant. Such roadblocks have kept all but a few chefs from taking to the streets — even as the food trucks fight to change the rules.

“It holds me off of doing things like sprouts, herbs and microgreens,” says chef Matt Maroni, noting that such ingredients would “turn to mush” if they lingered inside a pre-packaged sandwich. He’d love to do oyster po-boys, but “fried oysters would not travel well.”

So Maroni sells pre-made “naan-wiches” — Indian flatbread filled with veal piccata, pork belly and lobster — from what he calls the “gaztro-wagon.” Chef Phillip Foss drives his Meatyballs Mobile, selling sandwiches stuffed with balls of seafood, Thai-style turkey, venison and even bull testicles in a tomato sauce. Happy Bodega, which calls itself a “gourmet foodie truck,” sells soups and pastries on city streets.

A spokeswoman for the city says Chicago’s rules are for health and sanitary reasons. The City Council is currently considering some changes in food-truck laws. Brick-and-mortar restaurants are fighting the mobile insurgency, chasing trucks from their street fronts, calling police and snapping photos of the vendors in hopes of catching them illegally parked.

Holly Sjo, owner of The Cupcake Counter, a year-old downtown shop, called the cops when she spotted Kurtz parked near her business in a spot she believed to be illegal.

“She seems to only park next to other people’s cupcake shops,” Sjo says.

Kurtz denies the accusation. “I would never want to do that to another cupcake business,” she says.

The food truck concept is “a quaint idea,” says Dan Rosenthal, owner of Sopraffina Marketcaffe, a chain of Italian restaurants in Chicago. “But when you get right down to it, it creates an unlevel playing field.”

A food-truck operation can get off the ground for under $150,000, while many restaurants spend more than $1 million on real estate and equipment to open their doors.

“It’s an elitist thing,” says food-trucker Maroni. “Just step up your game,” he says. “McDonald’s doesn’t ask Burger King if they can open up across the street.”

Three years ago, Maroni, a long-time chef, moved to Chicago from Houston to open a neighborhood bistro. As the recession hit, his plan stalled. “I couldn’t come up with $1 million to $1.5 million,” he says.

In February, he had an idea to open a food truck. But when he started researching permit requirements, he was dismayed about the city’s rules.

So Maroni drafted a model ordinance now before the City Council that would legalize cooking in food trucks. He started a website to drum up support and a Twitter account. Today, he says he has more than 4,000 Twitter followers.

Under the proposed rules, the trucks could prepare food on the vehicle so long as they operate in conjunction with a licensed commercial kitchen. They’d also have to keep 200 feet away from a restaurant that “offers a similar service” and 100 feet away from all other food establishments.

Over the summer, Maroni bought an old postal truck on Craigslist for $6,300. For another $15,000, he installed two ovens, a sink, a refrigerator, counter space and electricity. He and his wife took it to the car wash and slapped a “gaztro-wagon” sticker on the side.

He also rented a kitchen and tiny storefront in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, where he serves sit-down meals and prepares his naan-wiches.

One recent morning, Maroni steered the gaztro-wagon toward downtown Chicago’s business district. At 11:41 a.m., he tweeted: “Merch mart en route” — signaling he would be at a familiar spot near the Merchandise Mart, a well-known commercial and residential building.

Minutes later, Maroni pulled up to a stop sign and waved to a man standing next to a parking space. Under a deal with a property manager at a nearby building, an employee holds a parking spot for him each Thursday in exchange for a bag of naan-wiches for the staff.

At 11:57, Maroni sent another message: “Touchdown merch mart!” After a smooth parallel parking job, he flipped open a big window on the side and fed the parking meter. Within minutes, he was doing a swift business.

Sometimes parking doesn’t go so smoothly. Meatyballs chef Foss says he was recently chased by a policeman on a bicycle as he looked for a parking space; the officer gave him a ticket for an expired city sticker, a charge Foss plans to fight. He also got a ticket for parking within 200 feet of a McDonald’s.

“I didn’t have a ruler with me,” says Foss. Now, written on a tip jar in his truck, he also asks for donations to his “Mobile Vending Violation Contribution Fund.”

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  1. mike Dec. 13, 2010 at 9:23 a.m.

    Food trucks are a great idea and should be allowed. If the city is worried about the sanitary conditions than they should crack down on all the “Illegal” food carts you see especially in the Hispanic neighborhoods that han no sanitary conditions at all

  2. donna Dec. 13, 2010 at 11:56 a.m.

    why is it that everyone wants chicago to be like every other city?
    seems to me we’re doing just fine being a ‘foodie destination’ without the trucks. hell, people travel to hot doug’s to wait in line for an hour in january. if you have good food, the people will come to you; you don’t have to drive it to them.
    and come on. surely it can’t be that hard to open an actual restaurant in chicago. i see new thai and asian mom & pop-type places opening up all the time… and i’ll bet they’re doing it with less than a million bucks.
    really, the last thing we need in chicago is more trucks on the road cramming into already popular areas. when’s the last time you were in the loop and thought to yourself, “man, i wish there was some kind of truck around here so i could get a sandwich.”
    i say poo-poo on food trucks.

  3. Lana Bogan Dec. 13, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    This HURTS my heart Maroni & Cupcake Girl! “McDonald’s doesn’t ask Burger King if they can open up across the street.” Brilliant rebuttal Maroni. I cannot believe what you’re going through. My son and his wife (a chef) just opened The Grilled Cheeseire. A food truck in Nashville, serving till 2:00 AM and sometimes later everywhere in town. This city is very people friendly and doesn’t have a strangle hold on the entrepreneur, stopping them “from the gate” from having any success by lame and crippling ordinances. There’s room for everyone and if not they make room. My entire family (and there are a lot of us) are Los Angeles transplants. We love the South. There is something to be said about “Southern hospitality.” How bout – it exists! I wish you great success. Keep on truckin’ friends.

  4. andy Dec. 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    don’t get me wrong, i’ve been to LA and eaten from food trucks there. it was convinienent, cheap, and it was pretty good. but why on earth should someone be able to “set up shop” at any random corner when the other restaurants have to pay for the 3 most expensive things in real estate, location, location, location?? no, there is no way on earth that you should just be able start selling anything from the back of your truck when others in the area have to pay for and follow rules that you don’t.

    right next to wrigley field is probably a pretty good place for a restaurant, right? right! and that’s why there is one already there. the food costs a fortune because the labor and real estate costs a fortune. why should someone be able to sell food at 1/2 the price, from a van that probably does not meet health code, and take up valuable parking spots? they shouldn’t.

    chicago screws up a lot of stuff, but we should never allow vans to start selling food. that’s one thing we’ve gotten right

  5. Gesundheit Dec. 13, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I say let the trucks roll! More options are better for the consumer. Food trucks serve a different clientele from the sit-down restaurants. Why not bring good food to the masses? Trucks can be health inspected just like restaurants. It’s called competition you whiny restaurant owners, and it has to be said, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! This is America, and the entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged. Markets should not be arbitrarily defined by government fiat. If your food is good, people will still come to your business. If a little food truck is cutting into your business, your food probably isn’t that good to begin with.

  6. Mid Mod Tom Dec. 13, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Let the food trucks in!

  7. CriticalThinkerInChi Dec. 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Free the food trucks! Free the food trucks! I’d love to have access to well-prepared fast food on the go. Keep up the good fight!

  8. Goose Me Dec. 13, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    The City of Chicago is again light years ahead of these other cities. The present system is the only way to prevent public health hazards. If a chef wants to cook these dishes do it like all of the law abiding businesses that do this already. Go open up your own restaurant. Anything different is dangerous and just not fair. Do you want to drop to the low disgusting level of a Los Angeles? Again until you leave Chicago like I unfortunately have had to do you do not even come close to realizing what you are missing. Chicago is the only place out of all of those cities listed that has any good food.

  9. Marianne Dec. 14, 2010 at 8:19 a.m.

    I love the idea of food trucks and don’t see a downside. The only questions we should be asking are how to make them safe, how to minimize disruptions to traffic, and how to prevent monopolies.

    The free market changes, bricks and mortar stores and laws have to adapt.

  10. JIM Dec. 14, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    I’ve been to Toranto and was told it was similar to Chicago. It was, except for the lack of a selection of good downtown resaurants. I blame that on the food carts they allowed on each corner not allowing downtown resaurants to successfully compete for the lunch crowd. Flooding the downtown area with a bunch of lunch truck will hurt the established restaurants and some will go out of business from the loss of lunchtime business. Sorry but this is not a good idea.

  11. Erv Dec. 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    As a restaurnatuer for over 17 years with multiple locations around Chicago, Food Trucks would be unfair and destructive to all of the brick and mortar establishments. Those in favor really need to look at the situation from an owners perspective who have always been forced into brick and mortar to be in the business. The capital required is tremendous and the risk is great. Unemployment is continuing to grow and this type of competition will definitely increase it. Is that what all of you who think its a great idea really want? Competition is great but unfair is destructive!

  12. dogman Dec. 14, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    All you cheap people stay at Burger King or 7/11. Brick and mortar restaurants employee many people. How may people can a food truck employ? Great thinking – lets create more unemployment. Do you think food trucks will offer heath insurance, pay taxes, or give any other kind of benefits? Who do you think will clean up after they leave? If you don’t like Chicago’s law go to L.A.

  13. mark Dec. 14, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    “As a restaurnatuer for over 17 years with multiple locations around Chicago, Food Trucks would be unfair and destructive to all of the brick and mortar establishments.”

    Some guy who owns a bunch of restaurants wants the law to protect him from competition. Sounds fair.

    “Unemployment is continuing to grow and this type of competition will definitely increase it.”

    The availability of more businesses, more jobs, more innovation, and more interest in the local food community will somehow magically cause more unemployment?

  14. William Dec. 15, 2010 at 9:54 a.m.

    Let the food trucks go on…going to a restaurant is a process in itself…if I’m on a quick break from work and want to grab a bite on the go food trucks are a perfect complement. I love most of the trucks on the go in NYC, cheap and convenient. You opened a restaurant to attract a certain crowd, it’s called a sit-down customer. Guess what, I don’t have time to sit-down for every meal. You knew what you were getting into when you opened up shop, rent, food costs, staff blah blah blah. If you can’t cut it and blame a food truck for losing business then your in denial. My guess is your foods mediocre at best and if I can get a better meal from a food truck then that says a lot about the quality of your establishment. Heck, you’d probably be out of business anyway to another restaurant in due time. And what traffic problem…these aren’t taxis with hundreds of them running around, maybe there’s 20 in a city. WOW, 20 parking spots, OMG. Another BS excuse, if one parking spot is filled in Wrigleyville go find another. I’m moving to Chicago in a week and look forward to trying out a foodtruck here and there. Hopefully these food trucks can keep moving on as I have a fantastic meal on wheels to provide Chicago residents. And I don’t want to open up a restaurant because it’s an item you don’t need an establishment to sell and would be stupid to open a restaurant and deal with those upfront costs…

  15. Terrilyn Thaker Dec. 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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