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Where have all the food trucks gone? Vendors say Chicago police cracking down

If you’ve been seeing less your favorite Chi­cago food trucks this spring that’s because police have been cracking down running

If you’ve been seeing less of your favorite Chi­cago food trucks this spring, that’s because police have been cracking down and running them off their usual locations, food truck operators say.

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Updated: May 11, 2012 8:15AM

If you’ve been seeing less of your favorite Chi­cago food trucks this spring, that’s because police have been cracking down and running them off their usual locations, food truck operators say.

Some vendors say Chicago police have gone so far as to track their planned whereabouts via social media — trucks often announce their locations for the day on Facebook and Twitter — and intercept them before they open.

Lupita Kuri, owner of the mobile bakery Sweet Ride, said in one such incident her driver had just pulled up but had yet to serve any customers when a police officer approached and told her he was ticketing her — based on her Facebook posting.

“You can’t get me for premeditated selling of a cupcake,” Kuri said her driver protested.

In that case, the officer eventually relented, but ticketed her anyway for parking in a loading zone, Kuri said.

On other occasions, Kuri and her fellow food-truck drivers have received tickets for operating too close to an existing food establishment, which can carry a $500 fine and more than wipe out a day’s receipts.

Amy Le, owner of the DucknRoll truck, believes the crackdown has been especially severe since a group of food truck operators met with city officials last month to press their case for an ordinance that would make it easier for them to do business.

During that meeting, she said, city officials casually asked about the best truck locations. In the days immediately afterward, police showed up at each spot and either ticketed the trucks or ordered them to move. Among the popular spots targeted were: Randolph and Franklin; Superior and Fairbanks, and 600 W. Chicago near the offices of Groupon, whose employees not surprisingly are very fond of food trucks.

“We didn’t realize it was going to be used against us,” Le said.

A police department spokesman denied any citywide enforcement directive concerning food trucks but was unsure whether a particular district had made them a priority.

If you don’t get downtown much, then you might not realize the summer of 2011 marked the first real emergence of food trucks in Chicago. By the end of the summer, it seemed like they were everywhere.

Judging by the long lines during lunch, young office workers especially like them, despite restrictions that preclude operators from cooking or preparing food on site.

Obviously, existing brick-and-mortar restaurants feel much less kindly about these mobile businesses, especially when they’re parked on the street outside their establishments.

I’m sympathetic to the competitive strain the trucks can put on restaurants paying rent and facing strict regulations of their own. But the fact is that people like the trucks and want the variety they offer. Eventually the city must recognize the demand.

As a friend of mine observed: If a restaurant can’t compete with a rival that doesn’t even offer its customers a place to sit, what does that say about the restaurant?

The lack of headway on an ordinance has prompted the Institute for Justice’s Clinic on Entrepreneurship to schedule a “mobile food symposium” for Saturday in the auditorium at the University of Chicago Law School, 1111 E. 60th St.

The symposium, titled “My Streets, My Eats,” will explore such topics as: “Chicago, What’s the hold up? The need to reform the windy city’s vending laws.”

More importantly for South Siders, many of the city’s popular food trucks are expected to meet there at 1:30 p.m. to serve lunch.

Beth Kregor, executive director of the clinic, said the organization first got involved in the issue by trying to protect neighborhood street vendors, then became aware of the problems of the food trucks.

Kregor said restrictions, which preclude food trucks from operating within 200 feet of any business that serves food, make it nearly impossible to operate legally in the Loop. The trucks have been known to push their limits by occupying loading zones.

“The rules are written to pretty much put us out of business and not let us grow as businesses,’’ Le said.

She finds it especially nonsensical that the city keeps awarding food-truck permits while taking away parking places. She said she is aware of 55 food trucks operating in the city.

Sweet Ride’s Kuri said truck operators are left looking over their shoulder for police, even when parked legally. “You feel like you’re dealing drugs in the alley,” she said.

Who knows what’s in those cupcakes?

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