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Emanuel’s food truck ordinance tasty to some, sour for others

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Updated: July 28, 2012 6:40AM



Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to allow food trucks to cook food onboard while restricting their locations is meant to cut unnecessary regulations and allow the food truck industry to grow, create jobs and support a vibrant food culture citywide.

Experts say food trucks enhance a city’s culinary culture without killing off restaurants. But a taste test by restaurant and food truck owners shows some like the hot food option, others are cold to any expansion while many think the ordinance is just right.

Restaurant owner Jorge Armando, the driving force behind the 11-year-old Cafe Society eatery in the South Loop, says an expansion of kitchen-equipped food trucks would create unfair competition.

“Now we’re going to see a guy park his truck less than a mile away and sell food for maybe less money after we restaurant owners have spent 12, 15 years establishing an honest day’s community-based place for people to eat,” Armando said. “How are we going to compete? . . . This is unfair.”

Food truck owner Amy Le, of DucknRoll, which serves Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, also doesn’t like the ordinance because it would require food trucks to stay 200 feet from restaurants; attach GPS tracking devices, and be restricted to designated “food stands” in high-demand areas.

Of the 55 food trucks licensed in Chicago, 27 are run by owners of full-fledged restaurants, according to Le’s calculations of permits. Five trucks are awaiting permits.

The ordinance Emanuel will introduce to the City Council on Wednesday is designed to satisfy restaurant owners and mobile truck operators.

The issue is an increasingly heated one nationwide as devoted foodies look for truck locations on Twitter, Facebook and other sites, driving the industry’s growth. Revenues from food trucks are expanding at a higher rate than the overall restaurant industry.

Mobile trucks are projected to garner $653.6 million in collective revenues this year, up 4 percent from 2011, while the overall restaurant industry will see a projected $632 billion, up 3.5 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Analysts say food trucks, rather than killing off restaurants, add to the vibrancy, creativity and overall interest in the culinary scene.

“Food trucks create enthusiasm,” said Robert Goldin, executive vice president at Chicago-based consultancy Technomic. “It’s analogous to three restaurants being open on the same street. It doesn’t kill anyone. It forces everyone to ‘up’ their game.”

The trucks often offer innovative specialty items that restaurants typically don’t carry, Goldin said.

Kevin Higar, Technomic’s director of research and consulting, said food trucks serve areas that wouldn’t appeal to or support a full-fledged restaurant.

A case in point: the former Montgomery Ward catalog building at 600 W. Chicago, home to Groupon and dozens of tech startups.

Outside the building, restaurant choices are a single sandwich shop and posh and pricey Japonais. At lunchtime Tuesday, eight food trucks clustered to meet the demand, but they ran out of menu items as people continued to line up to order.

“There aren’t too many good options so you’d have to take the bus downtown,” said Jason Aniceto, 27, who works for Poggled.com and wanders outside for lunch every day. “Food trucks give us the variety around here, and when you’re talking about more fresh food at a food truck, I just get excited about that.”

On-site preparation would mean even fresher lunch choices, said Aniceto, who ordered Taquero Fusion’s last remaining choice of the day: tiny meat tacos with chips and salsa for $6.

For Taquero Fusion owner Aaron Ramirez, of Hermosa Park, on-site prep will mean he can make lunch to order: Cheese or no cheese, better salsa varieties. And he won’t run out as fast. The van’s single warmer means he can sell only 400 or 500 prepared tacos at a time.

Meatloaf-A-Go-Go, the traveling branch of the MeatLoaf Bakery, 2464 N. Clark, also sold out of all of its hot dishes.

Cole Burns said he had to park the van illegally. Parking is frequently the biggest headache of running a lunch truck. But under the proposed rule changes, he would know his spot before heading out each day.

Brick-and-mortar restaurants have complained that the trucks have lower overhead and will detract from business.

But inside 600 W. Chicago, Snarf’s Sub Shop was hopping so much that a store manager couldn’t stop to talk.

It’s usually so busy they don’t notice when he pops inside to use their restroom, one lunch-truck operator said.

The bathroom issue is key, said Glenn Keefer, managing partner of Keefer’s restaurant at 20 W. Kinzie. Keefer, who has been vocally opposed to unregulated food trucks, said he hadn’t seen the final ordinance but he thinks the “elephant in the room” issue is that food truck operators and food handlers be able to show a written agreement with a building owner or management company that they can go inside and use the bathrooms of nearby buildings.

Keefer also said he doesn’t see how the police have enough time to track the trucks.

Restaurant owner Sam Berngard loves the variety the food trucks bring to the city’s cuisine but he wants the process to be fair.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mexican food truck Tamale Spaceship operated less than 100 feet away from his restaurant, Lloyd’s, on the corner of Wacker and Madison.

Finding a place to park the truck is the main headache for Pepe Balanzar, co-owner of Tamale Spaceship, so having designated parking spaces would help.

Balanzar sold out of his eight varieties of tamales within an hour and a half of opening on Tuesday afternoon.

Mary Burnsed, of Wheaton, had checked online to find the Tamale Spaceship truck before she headed out for lunch. The upside of the ordinance for her?

“I probably would have gotten my tamale.”

Contributing: City Hall reporter Fran Spielman



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