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Food truck operators not thrilled by ordinance to help them

Updated: August 27, 2012 11:22AM



The first Chicagoans to see a positive effect from the city’s new food truck ordinance will be folks who frequent Chicago’s bar scene between midnight and 2 a.m.

It’s only during that period that Chicago food truck operators will be freed from the hated requirement that they stay 200 feet away from existing food establishments.

As long as they find a legal parking space, food trucks will be permitted to serve the late night crowds wherever they can find them. Until now, they’ve been required to stop serving at 10 p.m. — and greatly limited by the 200-foot restriction.

This shouldadd a whole new level of excitement to the city’s after-hours street scene — especially for those with the munchies and those who can appreciate a good fistfight between bar owners and food truck operators.

The new access to the bar crowd, food truck operators tell me, is one of the wrinkles that gives them hope they will survive under the mobile food ordinance approved 45-1 Wednesday by the City Council, despite little enthusiasm overall from the industry it’s supposed to help.

Chicago’s food truck owners and operators are a free-wheeling entrepreneurial bunch who don’t like having a lot of rules.

They especially don’t like the 200-foot restriction — in effect the rest of the day — that effectively bars them from most of the central business district where the biggest concentration of customers can be found, nor a Big Brotherish requirement that they equip their trucks with GPS devices to make it easier for the city to track their whereabouts.

So it should come as no surprise that they weren’t exactly standing in the aisles applauding Wednesday as the City Council accorded them their long-sought legal status — with those strings and more attached.

In fact, they weren’t present at all, not even to protest the restrictions they find objectionable. Having lost a day of work last week to testify when the measure was ramrodded through committee, they knew it would be a waste of time.

Plus, as things now stand, most food trucks really only have a couple of hours each day at lunch to make their money, and for that, they have to be on the street.

That’s why I headed out to look for some of them as soon as the Council finished its vote.

I found Joe Cunningham and his Three J’s Bar-B-Q Pit Restaurant truck serving Caribbean-style jerk chicken dinners from a no parking zone on Monroe Street — right outside both the Italian Village restaurant and a Caribou Coffee.

Cunningham told me he’s been working the lunch crowds for six years from his converted ice cream truck, long before the industry turned trendy more recently with culinary school-educated chefs catering to a devoted foodie clientele.

At times, Chicago police “harassed us so bad it was like they thought we’re selling dope or something,” Cunningham said of those early years.

That’s why he welcomes the ordinance, even if he doesn’t expect much improvement. “It’s still going to be a mess. It’s going to be the same thing,” he said of the daily quest for a spot from which to conduct business.

The ordinance will require the city to designate at least five food truck stands — each large enough to park two trucks — in specified zones, including one for the central business district.

Cunningham and other operators say that’s not nearly enough to handle trucks already on the street, let alone new ones expected to seek licenses now that the trucks for the first time will be allowed to cook and prepare meals inside the vehicle.

Just around the corner on Dearborn, I found the Haute Sausage truck and owner Rich Levy, who had just sold the last of his cabo bacon cheddar dogs and was preparing to pull up stakes for the day.

You ever wonder how the trucks get those prized spots? The operators park their personal cars there as early as 5 a.m. — or even the previous night — and feed the pay box all day until they can arrive with the food.

That’s a hefty parking fee, but obviously nothing compared to the rent on a restaurant, which is only one of the reasons the restaurant industry demanded protections under the ordinance.

Sooner rather than later, the city will need to relax some of those restrictions to meet the growing public demand for these trucks.

In the meantime, “If we want to stay in business, we’ll find a way to make it work,” Levy opines.

That’s why they’ll survive.



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