If all goes as planned, sometime in August food trucks with on-board preparation will be rolling in Chicago's streets.
The ordinance expected to reach the Chicago City Council at its next meeting — July 25 — was introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, co-sponsored by Ald. Tom Tunney and several other aldermen and addresses many of the objections voiced by owners of bricks-and-mortar restaurants. High fees, parking and operating restrictions, and other requirements will give restaurant owners the protection they wanted, while giving food-truck operators a path — albeit a restricted one — to operate in.
"It's still a step forward," says Gabriel Wiesen, who with James Nuccio owns and operates the Beavers Coffee & Donuts food truck and owns Midwest Food Trucks, which builds food trucks for sale and lease. "I think this is really going to show growth in the hospitality industry and our shared culture."
When the ordinance is passed (I'm confident enough now to say when instead of if), here's what Chicagoans can expect.
More food. The strength of food trucks is not the wide-ranging menu; it's the focused selection of one or two dishes done well. We already have trucks specializing in empanadas (5411 Empanadas) and mac and cheese (The Southern Mac & Cheese truck). Will a chicken-and-waffles truck be next? Will someone copy Los Angeles' Kogi food truck (Korean barbecue tacos) here? You betcha.
Better food. On-board preparation is what will bring serious chefs into the food-truck game, because no one wants to attach his/her name to a secondary-quality product. The shorter the time between cooking and serving, the better the product. Period.
Safer food. Food safety is, and should be, of prime concern. But a properly equipped, properly maintained food truck is just as safe as a commercial kitchen, and likely safer. "One of the biggest issues in the hospitality industry is keeping food at the safe and proper temperature," Wiesen says, "and one of the hardest things to do is to maintain temperatures over time." When the food goes from cold storage to cooking to customer in minutes, food-temperature concerns lessen.
Recognizable names. The food truck debate has been couched in terms of no-name operators versus established bricks-and-mortar restaurateurs. But once an ordinance is in place, some of the most eager food-truck participants may be well-known restaurants and chefs.
"There are a lot of big culinary players waiting for that ordinance," Wiesen says. "We've gotten inquiries from restaurants and some great brands."
I can easily picture Rick Bayless, who already produces hot, made-to-order sandwiches at his two Frontera Tortas kiosks at O'Hare, taking that act on the road (not that he's said anything to me about it). Might he? How many other restaurants will be eager to build their brand by sending food trucks into the surrounding neighborhoods?
We'll find out. Just not right away. Food trucks aren't exactly sitting in the sales lot of Trucks R Us; they have to be built.
"The biggest issue is sourcing the truck," Wiesen says. "Once we have the truck — and we have a huge fleet in stock — we can get a truck customized in 12 weeks. And that's fast."
But once the ordinance passes, more trucks will be rolling. That's a given.