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Restaurants choke on food trucks proposal

Glenn Keefer (shown 2005). | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Glenn Keefer (shown in 2005). | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:07AM

Chicago restaurant owners are mobilizing to block City Hall from creating an “unlevel playing field” for their brick-and-mortar businesses — by legalizing mobile food trucks with cooking on the premises.

Five months after Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) championed the idea, restaurant owners are trying to bury it.

“We spent almost $9 million on two restaurants. It’s unfair to people who invested so much to allow someone who has a minimal investment in a truck . . . to pull up 200 feet from our door,” said Glenn Keefer, managing partner of Keefer’s Restaurant.

“They can barely get enough people out to inspect brick-and-mortar places. I don’t understand how they’ll be able to supervise and enforce sanitation on these trucks and where they trade.”

Dan Rosenthal, owner of Trattoria No. 10 and Sopraffina Marketcaffe Restaurants, argued that Waguespack’s ordinance creates an “unlevel playing field” for brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“The reason I’ve located where I have is there’s a very dense population close to my locations. Why should somebody be allowed to take advantage of that for less than one-tenth of the expense?” he said.

“Every dollar I lose in sales to a food truck down the street costs me 50-cents in profit. It doesn’t take a lot of decline in sales for restaurants to go out of business, particularly in this economy.”

Rosenthal further argued that legalizing mobile food trucks will not create the “warm, fuzzy, boutique-type of food service” that proponents envision.

“People think you’ll get all these hot, young chefs who don’t have access to capital creating all these great, exotic dishes. But, there’s nothing preventing Corner Bakery from doing food trucks,” he said.

“People had better be careful what they wish for. They could end up with food trucks serving standard fare, rather than unique street food.”

Matt Maroni is the chef and owner of Gaztro-Wagon, a mobile food truck and storefront that specializes in modern street fare. He helped write the ordinance that Waguespack introduced in July.

Maroni was not moved by the argument about an unlevel playing field for restaurants.

“It’s a capitalist society. If they’re worried about competition, maybe they need to look at their concept,” he said.

“It opens a street-food culture to the city. Chicago is such a great food town. This just adds to it.”

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

Waguespack’s ordinance would legalize cooking on the premises and establish strict operating conditions to ensure sanitation and avoid unfair competition with stationary restaurants.

Mobile food trucks would be required to have at least three sinks, but prohibited from having tables or benches.

They would have to follow designated routes so the city would know where they are to conduct random inspections. They would have to be located at least 200 feet away from a restaurant and 100 feet from any retail store that sells food.

The annual license would range from $660 to $1,100, depending on the size of the truck.

Despite the opposition, Waguespack said he’s hoping to get a City Council hearing on the ordinance sometime next month.

“We have some of the biggest chefs chomping at the bit to open a food truck. They see it as beneficial to their business. Other restaurants don’t see it as a good thing. It boils down to what you want to do,” Maroni said.

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