September 12, 2013
It's been more than a year since the City of Chicago passed an ordinance to allow on-board cooking on food trucks, but it hasn't been an easy ride since for operators trying to make a living on city streets.
There's no such thing as a sign-up sheet or schedule for the city's 30 official food truck locations (which the city said it eventually intends to increase based on popularity), and there's no association of food trucks despite efforts to organize one.
What there is is a fledgling, vibrant industry experiencing some growing pains as the trucks try to reconcile their business needs and competitive instincts with the city's efforts to create a workable, user-friendly system. Here are five issues—#foodtruckproblems, you could say—that food truck owners in Chicago have been struggling with this summer.
1. Shortage of desirable spots
Thirty may sound like a large number of areas for about 120 licensed food trucks, but a vast disparity exists in how the truck owners view the locations' desirability. No one is fighting on weekdays over the spot at, say, Southport Avenue near Addison Street. Instead, three areas have become truck magnets, luring more vehicles than often can be accommodated: Cityfront Plaza, in Streeterville; 600 W. Chicago Ave. (in front of the big office building that houses Groupon); and in Hyde Park between 57th and 59th streets on Ellis Avenue.
"Oh my God, it's insane. Now, people are coming like at 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning, they're parking their trucks, they're turning them off, and they're having cars deliver their food," said Sarah Weitz, co-owner of The Fat Shallot truck. :There's not enough (good) spots, so we're all going to the same three spots that work."
The Hyde Park location isn't even among the city-sanctioned spots yet appears to be the most popular of all, with 11 trucks lined up there on a recent Friday at lunchtime. That section of Ellis, at the heart of the University of Chicago campus, offers a long stretch of open curbside with few nearby restaurants to compete, and the trucks don't need to arrive in the wee hours to get a spot.
"The University of Chicago is so food truck-friendly. That's why everyone loves coming out here," said Delano Crawford, partner with the Porkchop truck.
2. No parking guarantees
Steve Maxwell had spent most of his recent Thursday lunchtimes downtown selling Indian specialties out of his Curried foodtruck in the roundabout in front of NBC Tower, but on a late July Thursday he pulled up at about 8:30 a.m. to find three other foodtrucks already parked in the designated food truck zone.
"I've been coming here for six months every Thursday," he protested, gesturing to the other trucks -- Slide Ride up front, followed by Eleaven and Tamale Spaceship -- as if they were interlopers. "Today if I don't get this spot, I'm screwed. I have all this food, and I'll have to throw it all away."
The Curried truck stayed, but at 11:30 a.m. a fifth truck showed up, Windy City Patty Wagon, which, unlike the other four trucks there, cooks its food on board. With not enough room to pull in behind Curried, Patty Wagon was sticking out a bit while owner Danny Herrera tried to persuade at least one of the other truck drivers to move along.
The city ordinance passed in July 2012 calls for trucks to obey a two-hour limit for each of the designated food truck locations. Herrera reasoned that if the Curried truck had arrived at 8:30 a.m. and was fourth in line, all of those trucks had exceeded their allotted time, so Patty Wagon deserved a spot.
Uh, no, the other drivers informed him. That's not how it works. This is Chicago, city of dibs.
"That's how you have to do things in the food truck industry: Get there early, get your spot. Otherwise you won't be able to sell," said Gerardo Gutierrez, driver of the Eleaven truck.
3. Trucks shirking the two-hour limit
After being turned away at Cityfront, Herrera called the 311 city service line to complain about the Cityfront Plaza situation.
"Sorry @theslideride @Eleaven @tamalespace101 and @GetCurriedAway we've been patient and friendly, but we had to file a complaint today because you're not abiding by the 2 hour rule in a food truck zone, especially at City Front," Herrera wrote on Twitter and Facebook. "Everyone should get a turn for lunch service there. We've been trying for 2 months to get in there. Not cool, guys."
Like most of the truck operators interviewed, Weitz said she doesn't abide the two-hour limit "because no one else does," but practical considerations also are involved. The Fat Shallot cooks on board, and Weitz said setup takes an hour, and more time is needed to clean up afterward. Jimmy Nuccio, co-owner of the Beavers Coffee & Donuts truck, said he needs a half hour to get the oil hot and another half hour to break down after service.
"I think the two-hour rule is eventually going to be stricken from the ordinance because it's really not conducive for cooking," said Nuccio, who said sometimes a Beavers employee will park a car in a food truck spot overnight so the truck can take its place early in the morning.
To Weitz, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. "I don't know what the solution is, because if they start enforcing the two-hour rule, it's going to be bad for all of us, but people are just getting there earlier and earlier for those spots," she said.
"We're playing by the rules. We're going to stick to the two-hour limits," said Herrera.
Jennifer Lipford, communications director for the city's Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department, said the city established the two-hour rule, in part, to prevent trucks from staking out spots and also to give more trucks the opportunity to use favored spots.
"We encourage owners experiencing difficulties to reach out to us," she said. "Recently, we've been working with owners to hear their concerns and explore opportunities for improvements."
4. Distrust with the city
But distrust exists between some of Chicago's food trucks and the city. Amy Le, who used to own the DucknRoll truck, said many owners felt that the city didn't listen to the concerns about the number and quality of designated spots and the 200-foot-from-a-restaurant rule. A lawsuit filed in November on behalf of the Schnitzel King and Cupcakes for Courage truck owners challenging the 200-foot rule and the city's requirement that trucks install GPS systems continues to move forward, with a status hearing scheduled for Sept. 27.
5.Lack of organization
Several truck owners say they'd still like to get a workable association going, though an attempt last year fizzled. "We had a discussion with a large group of the trucks about trying to set up a schedule that we would enforce as a group, but it takes one person not wanting to do it for it not to work," said Le, who had assumed a leadership role during her truck's operation. She noted that of 55 food truck owners in the discussion, 53 agreed to follow a schedule, but two said no. "I said, we can't enforce this if not everybody's on board."
CHICAGO FOOD TRUCKS BY THE NUMBERS
30 -- Official food truck locations in Chicago
2 -- Spots at each location
19 -- Trucks licensed to cook food on board
122 -- Total licensed food trucks in the city
200 -- Minimum number of feet between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants
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