On a brisk autumn evening in the West Loop, customers lined up to buy warm tacos from Marisol Ramirez’s Taquero Fusion truck.
But before they could eat, they had to uncap an awkward gaggle of containers, empty condiments onto the tacos and toss the plastic into the garbage.
That’s because city rules prohibit food truck operators from preparing dishes on site. So if Ramirez, for example, had squirted salsa or sprinkled cabbage on a taco before handing it to a customer, she would have violated city codes.
“When everything is prepackaged, it’s harder and very costly,” Ramirez said. “It really hurts to see all of those plastic containers get thrown away. … (If the law changed) we could make the tacos with the fixings right on the truck, which would also give it a fresher flavor.”
Such rules have long rankled food entrepreneurs in Chicago, who became increasingly vocal during the waning days of Mayor Richard M. Daley‘s administration. They complained — often loudly — about what they saw as obstructive policies on food trucks, food carts, shared kitchens, urban agriculture and other small food businesses.
Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected in February, many of these same disgruntled entrepreneurs have grown vocal again — this time, about their hope for change.
“I’m super excited about some of the things that are coming up and this new willingness to have a dialogue,” said Erika Allen, an urban farmer who criticized agriculture rules developed under the Daley administration that were recently overturned. “I think Daley supported a lot of (food businesses), but his departments were structured like silos with a lack of integration and communication and sometimes an attitude of, ‘This is just the way things are done.'”
Last year, food truck advocate Matt Maroni worked with 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack to introduce an expanded food truck ordinance that would have made on-site preparation legal and modeled new safety codes on those in other cities, but it ended up going nowhere in City Council.
With Emanuel announcing his support for food trucks in February, Maroni has grown more optimistic about the ordinance, and it was reintroduced to the council in June.
“We feel like we are on the cusp of getting it out of committee and finally up for a vote,” Maroni said. “I can see food trucks being licensed by the spring. I know a lot of people want to see it happen tomorrow, but it takes time, patience and a lot of listening to make it happen.”
In June the mayor also took on the issue of “food deserts” by convening a private meeting of food store CEOs. Emanuel reportedly promised to help fast-track paperwork and create incentives to open new groceries in underserved communities, and even suggested 11 potential locations.
“Throughout the campaign the mayor was very concerned about food access, both in terms of the health of our communities and in terms of economic development,” said David Spielfogel, the mayor’s chief of policy and planning. “So he has been pushing all departments to think about what role they play and has asked each of them to come back with recommendations on how they can improve food access throughout the city.”
This charm offensive from the administration has proven surprisingly far-reaching. As recently as last month, irate Logan Square Kitchen owner Zina Murray was calling for reforms in the Department of Public Health on her blog and in an online petition.
Under policies drafted before the advent of shared kitchens, her business had been inspected 19 times in the last two years when most food businesses are visited just twice a year. A new ordinance has addressed that problem, but Murray had a long list of other practices that she felt were hampering small business.
Last week, however, Murray emerged from a meeting with Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair with a change of heart. She said she felt encouraged, saying it was a “very solution-oriented meeting … and (Choucair) said all the right things. Now, we’ll see if there is some action.”
With city departments facing a mayoral mandate to improve food access, former defenders of Daley-era policies — who had warned of threats to public health, established codes and traditional businesses — have grown silent.
In the past, the Chicago Department of Health was not shy about citing the potential health dangers of food carts. But “right now our position is that if we can find a way to do it safely and we can be friendly to business, we’re going to do it,” said department spokesman Jose Munoz.
Representatives from the Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning who strongly supported Daley’s version of the urban agriculture rules had no comment on the changes made under Emanuel.
And the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which has long tangled with food businesses over what entrepreneurs saw as confusing and cumbersome regulations, this month announced it would streamline licensing and inspection procedures to make it easier for new businesses of any kind to open.
The Illinois Restaurant Association, whose president, Sheila O’Grady, suggested last year that food trucks be restricted to selling in food deserts, released a more conciliatory statement Tuesday. It suggested that food trucks may be acceptable and that the group is working “to come to a solution that is mutually beneficial to all of the business owners involved.”
O’Grady is a former Daley chief of staff.
Although the Emanuel administration seems to be more open to many nontraditional food entrepreneurs, food carts may be the final frontier. Street vendors of fresh corn, fruits and vegetables operate in a legal limbo, where they are often tolerated but cannot get licenses and thus can be ticketed.
Although licensing provisions exist for food carts on Park District land, attempts to come up with a broader ordinance have consistently failed. But the University of Chicago‘s Institute for Justice believes that, with food truck fever in the air, the time may finally be right to legalize carts also. To that end, it launched My Streets My Eats, a campaign that shows citizens how to express support for mobile food vending (both trucks and carts) and provides law students to help entrepreneurs navigate the legal maze.
“We will continue our campaign to give cart owners the freedoms to prepare food from carts, to operate before 10 in the morning and to operate all over the city,” institute Director Beth Milnikel wrote in an email.
To that, Spielfogel offered some of the most pro-cart sentiments to roll out of City Hall in decades. “We are honestly looking at any strategy that gets fresh food into every community, and I think food carts are certainly a very good strategy for that,” he said. “Plus, they help us grow local entrepreneurs.”
This kind of message has generated cautious converts among advocates who, until very recently, had little hope for the city’s food policies.
“I believe that the new mayor is really working to improve the environment across the board,” Logan Square Kitchen’s Murray said. “But it’s not going to be easy to change a whole culture.”