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Mayor Rahm Emanuel serves up own mobile food truck plan

Gaztro-Wagfood truck chef Matt Maroni's Smoked Pork Shoulder with Radish Chile Corn Salad 2011. File photo. I  Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Gaztro-Wagon food truck chef Matt Maroni's Smoked Pork Shoulder with Radish, Chile and Corn Salad in 2011. File photo. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:21AM

Chicago would finally legalize mobile food trucks, but restrict their operations to avoid undercutting nearby restaurants, under a proposed mayoral compromise unveiled Monday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance — placed on the fast-track in hopes of authorizing scores of rolling restaurants this summer — is designed to end a two-year stalemate that has stunted the city’s growth as a culinary capital.

To appease brick-and-mortar restaurants concerned about the threat to their businesses, the mayor’s ordinance would require mobile food trucks to meet three basic criteria.

They would have to set up shop at least 200 feet away from any licensed restaurant. They would have to be in a location where they could “legally park.” And they could not remain in any one location for more than two hours at a time.

The 200-foot restriction would not apply between midnight and 5 a.m. citywide.

The mayor’s ordinance would also create designated “food stands” in “highly congested,” parking-starved areas that would give mobile food trucks “defined places where they know they would be able to operate.”

Food stands would be exempt from the 200-foot buffer and be 40 feet long, enough for roughly two parking spaces.

A minimum of five stands would be located in each of six designated community areas: the Loop, the Near West Side, Lake View, Lincoln Park, Near North and West Town. Food stands may also be built in other parts of the city.

Mobile food trucks are currently permitted in Chicago, but they can only sell pre-packaged foods.

For the first time, Emanuel’s ordinance would authorize the cooking of food on a vehicle.

It would also upgrade the current “mobile food dispenser” category to allow those vehicles to sell “not only pre-packaged food, but also to perform low-level preparation” defined as “cutting, assembling, etc.”

Mobile food trucks would also be required to install GPS systems that would be used to “monitor and enforce truck locations and activity.” The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection would be empowered to cap the number of mobile food truck licenses and “impose a lottery system, in the event” that a crush of mobile food trucks caused “oversaturation or traffic congestion and safety concerns.”

If a cap is imposed, no one applicant could be issued more than 10 percent of the licenses, each of them issued for a $1,000 fee.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chief sponsor of the stalled mobile food truck ordinance, said he was working to forge a similar compromise with License Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) when he heard about the mayor’s plan.

“It creates more choice for people throughout the city, especially in areas that don’t have access to good food. It creates jobs and adds to the culinary outlook of the city. It adds to the whole prospect of Chicago being this forward-thinking city, especially in the culinary arts,” Waguespack said.

Waguespack said he was “kind of annoyed” when he found out Emanuel was working on a “parallel ordinance” virtually identical to the compromise he was crafting.

“We had already done all this work on it. We could have avoided doing extra work.”

But, he said, “The fact that they have come around to agreeing ... this is a good thing to have in the city is what’s most important. It looks like we’re all getting to the same page. But, I’m talking to Aldermen Reilly and Tunney now to see what changes they think are important. I want to make sure they’re at the table.”

Pressed on whether mobile food trucks would be a threat to brick-and-mortar restaurants, Waguespack said, “I don’t think it’s a threat. A lot of restaurants at different levels already have food trucks. Even people who were opposed to it will probably get into the food truck business. You can create more jobs. And you can expand your marketing opportunity through the city. With that comes more profit and more choice.”

The mayor’s ordinance doesn’t come soon enough for Matt Maroni, the former owner of Gaztro-Wagon, a mobile food truck and storefront that specialized in modern street fare who helped Waguespack write the original ordinance. Maroni sold his business to take a job as head chef at the Women’s Athletic Club.

But, Maroni said it’s high-time that Chicago emerge from the dark ages and join a parade of major cities that have already legalized mobile food trucks.

“Chicago is a world-class culinary city, yet we’re the only metropolitan city in the top 50 that does not allow cooking on food trucks,” Maroni said.

“It’s important to the food scene. It’s a great thing for Chicago. It’ll give people the opportunity to expand their business or start a new business. It’s a whole other piece of the pie for entrepreneurs. It’s about time. Better late than never.”

Maroni said he’s certain there will be enough business for mobile food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants to survive.

“There’s over 3,000 permitted trucks in Los Angeles and restaurants aren’t closing because of food trucks. In fact, they’re in underdeveloped parts of town. They bring people to parts of town who wouldn’t necessarily be there. The same thing will happen here,” he said.

Waguespack has likened the prohibition on mobile food trucks to the city’s notorious and now-repealed ban on foie gras for the “negative light” that it sheds on the city’s business climate in general and on Chicago’s culinary scene in particular.

Dan Rosenthal, owner of Trattoria No. 10 and Sopraffina Marketcaffe Restaurants, was once dead-set against the idea on grounds that mobile food trucks would cut into his business.

But, he said the mayor’s proposed compromise does a “good job of cutting the baby in half ... They’ve really made it possible for operators to have a comfort level that they’re not gonna be overridden by dozens of food trucks parked outside their establishments where they pay huge rents for the privilege of being in high-traffic areas.”

He added, “It greatly restricts the number of food trucks that could be on the street per zone. It provides for severe penalties for violation of the ordinance, which was not the case before. It greatly restricts their hours of operation and imposes very strict controls for sanitation and food safety. The penalties are very substantial and very costly. I hope the ordinance passes and we see a lot of food trucks on the street very quickly, abiding by the ordinance, providing high-quality, unique food for visitors and locals alike.”

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