Food trucks united

By Katy Nielsen

Rain and hail poured onto the tent where hundreds of Chicagoans stood holding paper cups filled with meatballs, munching on cupcakes and standing in line for enchiladas, all of them there to support Chicago’s growing food truck industry. Despite the weather, by the end of the night, most of the food trucks were sold out of their food.

This was the scene at the Food Truck Summit held at Goose Island Beer Brewpub, 1800 N. Clybourn Ave., on April 19, which was geared toward bringing awareness to challenges faced by the food truck industry.

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said on March 1 that he would favor changing the Mobile Food Dispenser ordinance that prevents food trucks from cooking on-site and handling food onboard their vehicles.

“All great world-class cities have a street food culture they’re known for,” said Matt Maroni, founder of Chicago Food Trucks and owner of Gaztro-Wagon. “It’s one thing Chicago lacks.”

According to the Mobile Food Dispenser ordinance, business owners cannot cook, cut or handle food onboard, which means everything must be precooked and packaged in a licensed kitchen. Additionally, trucks cannot be stationary for more than two hours and vending must stop at 10 p.m.

“Under the Mobile Food Dispenser ordinance, you’re not allowed to cut a fruit, cut a vegetable or serve coffee,” said Elizabeth Gomez, director of business and community relations in the 32nd Ward. “Those kinds of things can’t happen unless the law changes.”

Gomez is working with Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and several other members of City Council to alter the current law because it will be a good change for the city, she said.

“What we’re asking for is to allow the entrepreneurs to do what many other cities do,” Gomez said. “This is allowing them to cook and prepare on the truck, so people don’t have to eat sandwiches that have been sitting there for eight hours.”

Chefs would be able to prepare food the way they want to if allowed to cook onboard.

“If they let us cook or handle food on the truck, I would be able to serve the tamales the way I want, more like a dish,” said Manny Hernandez, co-founder of Tamale Spaceship Food Truck, who was with his truck at the Food Truck Summit. “If I could serve the product the way I actually serve it at home, that would be huge.”

When Maroni started advocating for Chicago’s food truck industry in 2010, he said he didn’t know how much support he would receive. He started The Chicago Food Trucks organization, which seeks to open a dialogue and change the laws for the industry in Chicago.

Illinois legislators are backing Maroni’s cause, as well as Emanuel, though Maroni said the process is tedious.

“It takes time,” he said. “There’s a lot of turnover going on at City Hall right now, but I’m still very positive [the law] will change. People of Chicago are ready for it. It’s just a matter of time before we get the right plan in place.”

Maroni said he would like to see food truck owners  working after 10 p.m. because they could reach late-night clientele.

“I can’t cook on the truck I have right now,” Maroni said. “If I cut a sandwich in half and a health officer walked up, he could ticket me for cutting a sandwich in half.”

According to Chicago law, fines for cooking or handling food on a truck range from approximately $200 to $700.

Not everyone, however, is in favor of allowing food truck owners to cook on-site. Some restaurant owners argue there would be greater competition among vendors and restaurants, which could pose a threat to local businesses.

“It probably would affect our business if they pulled up and tried to sell food in front of the restaurant or down the street,” said Derrick Johnson, employee at Chicago Carry Out, 63 E. Harrison St. “It’s just one more store, that’s what [food trucks] really are.”

Under the current ordinance, the food truck business generally does not hurt Chicago Carry Out,  Johnson said, because there are not a significant number of competitive businesses on wheels.

“I do see some pizza trucks, and they affect us,” Johnson said. “Instead of people coming in here, they’re grabbing pizza from that guy.”

Establishing a food truck scene could boost the city’s economy and provide more jobs, said Mike Sheerin, popular restaurateur and former executive chef at Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph St.

“I honestly think it’s a void in our culinary scene here,” Sheerin said. “I think we should be allowed to cook on premise. It would provide an opportunity for people [who] are on the trucks to prepare food better.”

Maroni said representatives might want to consider the benefits changing the law could have for the city and jobs it could potentially create.

“We have a progressive mayor coming in and a new progressive City Council,” Maroni said. “They see the benefits of this.”