Changing Gears: Midwest Food Trucks Hit Legal Roadblocks

People line up outside the Dim and Den Sum food truck for gourmet tacos and kimchi mac and cheese. (Photo courtesy of 'Changing Gears')

by Ida Lieszkovszky |

People line up outside the Dim and Den Sum food truck for gourmet tacos and kimchi mac and cheese. (Photo courtesy of 'Changing Gears')

Food trucks are a hot trend in cities from LA to Denver. They’ve transformed the way people think about the restaurant business. But when it comes to Midwestern cities, so far food trucks have been stuck in idle.

The Midwestern economy series Changing Gears decided to find out why. Ida Lieszkovszky starts off with food trucks in Ohio.

On a recent Monday afternoon in Cleveland, dozens of people mingled in a parking lot filled with trucks serving gourmet tacos and mac and cheese topped with kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment.

“We’ve isolated a few items off every menu and we’ll be hitting them all as long as lines don’t get too long,” said Russ Miller, one of the customers.

Many of those tacos were made by Oleh Holowatyj, chef of the Dim and Den Sum food truck. According to Holowatyj, these meals on wheels are small business incubators.

“It’s a launching pad for people who are passionate about food and maybe they eventually they want to get into the brick and mortar business too.”

Dim and Den Sum is launching a second food truck soon. That will mean hiring about ten more people. They also want to open one of those brick and mortar restaurants at some point. But they almost shut down in April, because they were not allowed to operate downtown at lunch time. Restaurant owners had been complaining that the food trucks are unfair competition.

Rini Meader, owner of City Street Deli in downtown Cleveland is less than thrilled about area food trucks – especially Dim and Den Sum ever since this past St. Patrick’s Day.

Rini Meador, owner of City Street Deli in Cleveland says she doesn’t mind food trucks, as long as they don’t park too close to her restaurant.

She had hired extra help for the day, and bought plenty of extra supplies to meet the demand of hungry parade goers who wander into her establishment. But Dim and Den Sum foiled her plans when they parked right across the street from her deli.

“I don’t mind for any innovative ideas coming to this city,” Meador said. “I’ve been here 11 years, I’m all about this city. But what I don’t appreciate is a food truck coming 20 steps from my door.”

Meador said it costs more to run a regular restaurant than a truck because of rent, taxes, and food licenses. According to the Ohio Department of Health, food truck licenses in Ohio run from $50 to $250. Licenses for regular restaurants usually start in the low 100’s, but could run owners more than a grand.

“I don’t think it’s fair for them to pay so little to the city and be able to be parked in front of a restaurant that’s paying top dollar,” she said.

Dim and Den Sum Chef Oleh Holowatyje doesn’t buy that argument.

“I really don’t think that if you’re going to a steakhouse, let’s say Johnny’s to buy a $35 or $30 steak that you’re going to say ‘omg there’s a taco truck that’s selling a taco for six bucks. Forget our reservations!’ Let’s go there instead!”

Since then, Cleveland City Hall has passed legislation allowing food trucks to operate in the city at certain spots and during certain hours. Holowatyj said that’s keeping them in business, but he’s still annoyed the law is only temporary; it sunsets at the end of November.

Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman helped pass that legislation. He said he’s really excited,”the hot dog guys are not. I’m hearing from them constantly, but monopoly isn’t something that city council protects.”

Cimperman said that by November, City Council will have plenty of data and experience from a summer’s worth of food truck sales to help them write a better, permanent law, one that keeps food trucks away from restaurant entrances but still gives them plenty of time and space to operate.

Food trucks in Chicago are having their own problems. A 20 year old Windy City law forbids the production of food on a vehicle.

“We don’t even have hot dog stands in Chicago. There’s no street vendors in Chicago either,” pointed out Matt Maroni. Maroni is chef/owner of  Gaztro Wagon, one of about 20 gourmet food trucks in Chicago. Compare that to Los Angeles, which boasts almost 10,000 food trucks. Since he can’t cook his food on this truck, Maroni has to pre-assemble his specialty, the naanwich – sandwiches of lamb and other meats made with Indian naan bread – in advance. He also has a storefront restaurant where a similar menu is sold.

Maroni thinks the law in antiquated, and his product “is diminished a little bit by having to prepackage it. But you have to make do with what you’ve got here in Chicago until the ordinance gets changed.”

Maroni is working with lawmakers to change that rule, and Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel has promised to make things easier for food trucks.

People line up outside Darcy’s, one of Mark’s Carts on its opening day.

Things seem to be going better in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Mark Hodesh recently launched a food cart courtyard in a back lot of Downtown Home and Garden, his store.

He calls it Mark’s Carts, and he said for most of the eight independently operated carts, it’s their first business. “It’s really inexpensive.” Said Hodesh, “They don’t have to sell the farm and sign a ten year lease and huge deposits; they can get in business for small money. They buy the cart, and show up here.”

Hodesh said he’s actually gotten a lot of support from local officials and neighbors. The biggest obstacle Mark’s Carts faces isn’t bureaucratic; it’s Mother Nature. Once the snow starts falling, the carts will have to close but nearby restaurants will stay open.

Changing Gears explores the future of the industrial Midwest.  The series is a public media collaboration between WBEZ, Michigan Radio, and Ideastream in Cleveland.

Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.