The Battle for Chicago Food Trucks

By Jan Fletcher |

Chicago remains the last major U.S. city to get on board with the food-truck trend, due largely to a city ordinance that states operators can serve but not prepare food on the streets. That may soon change, however, as culinary-school grads hungry for jobs fight brick-and-mortar restaurateurs to change the ordinance.

It’s a battle that typically ends in food-truck operators’ favor, says Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.

Geller met Chicago food-truck entrepreneur Matt Maroni at the National Restaurant Association Show in 2010 during a panel on regulatory issues. Maroni had launched his Gaztro-Wagon under Chicago’s existing food-truck rules, and solicited Geller’s help in proposing a new ordinance that would ultimately open the door for a food-truck revolution in one of the country’s culinary hotbeds.

Maroni approached Chicago Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack with a draft ordinance that would expand the existing laws, allowing food-truck operators to prepare food in the truck. The draft is working its way through the committee process, Waguespack says, and public hearings will commence this spring.

“[Maroni is] a constituent of mine, and he was the impetus to push it forward,” Waguespack says. “He talked about what it would do for the culinary profession in Chicago.”

Waguespack says a group of professional chefs in his ward “found that food trucks were everywhere in major cities but Chicago. This would be great as long as we can deal with streets and sanitation issues. Part of it is that gastronomy is flourishing. There’s a lot of creativity in the market.”

The Kendall College School of Culinary Arts is also in Waguespack’s ward. He says the school’s new grads cannot afford to open restaurants, “but two or three could pitch money together and start a food truck.”

“There’s a certain sexiness to the issue because of social media,” says Glenn Keefer, owner of Keefer’s Restaurant in Chicago, noting that he’s opposed to the ordinance change. “It’s kind of cool. You’re in on it. But it’s probably not going to be as safe.”

Keefer thinks the proposed change is unfair to those who have invested heavily in brick and mortar.

“We have a social contract—we’re paying a lot in property taxes,” Keefer says. “These guys have no real estate taxes. There’s no social contract for them reaping the benefits of the density of this location. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of little league teams sponsored by the Gaztro-Wagon.”

But Geller, who is confident the new ordinance will pass, says the newer mobile trucks “are nicer than some of the kitchens I’ve seen in restaurants. In Chicago, it’s a pretty simple change.”