By Monica Eng | Chicago Tribune
The jibarito sandwich is a Chicago invention featuring seared steak, lettuce, tomato and cheese between hot fried plantains.
But the Jibarito Stop food truck may never serve its namesake sandwich. That’s because the dish needs to be cooked to order, something Cely Rodriguez and Moraima Fuentes have lost hope of doing on the truck they own.
Though food truck operators have long sought permission for onboard cooking, not a single Chicago truck has been licensed for it since the practice was legalized in July.
The process of getting a license is just too daunting, according to Rodriguez and Fuentes, who cite bad experiences with city bureaucracy, steep additional costs and the need to retrofit equipment among the reasons.
“I think many food truck owners are hesitant to even pursue cooking onboard because of their haunting experience with working with the city,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. It was frustrating enough just to get a license that allows the truck to serve prepackaged foods, she wrote.
Of the 109 entrepreneurs who have applied for the Mobile Food Preparer licenses that allow onboard cooking, none has met the city’s requirements, according to the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
“The city wants to see a thriving food truck industry that also maintains important health and safety standards that are in place to protect the public,” said Business Affairs spokeswoman Jennifer Lipford. The department has held multiple workshops for businesses and offers individual consultations, she said.
Some food truck operators blame the holdup on Chicago Department of Public Health officials who cite numerous problems and offer few solutions. But Lipford, who works with the Health Department on the licensing process, says only four of the 109 applicants have returned for follow-up consultations after applying.
“We want to see more food trucks and we want to work with people, but we can’t work with them if they don’t come back,” Lipford said.
Gabriel Wiesen, a food truck operator who also runs Midwest Food Trucks, part of a company that outfits food trucks for cities all over the nation, said Chicago’s code is “one of the most, if not the most, stringent in the country.”
While most of its provisions are similar to those in other major cities, Wiesen said, Chicago’s code includes rules on ventilation and gas line equipment that “are meetable but extremely cumbersome and can raise the price of outfitting a truck by $10,000 to $20,000.”
Wiesen said the additional ventilation equipment (with intake and exhaust fans similar to those in brick-and-mortar kitchens) also raises the height of trucks to 13 feet, making certain Chicago underpasses impassable.
“The Fire and Health departments have set standards for what they think is safe (on the trucks) and that’s what we follow,” Lipford said. “Our doors are always open to individual operators to help them through the process of starting a business and help get new trucks moving, but we will not compromise health and safety standards for everyone in the city.”
Aaron Crumbaugh, who operates the Wagyu Wagon, said the city is sending mixed messages. While he’s heard official speeches on streamlining licensing procedures for small businesses, he has been discouraged by a process he sees as full of obstacles and little guidance.
Crumbaugh said he is outfitting several trucks for franchisees in other cities whose processes for licensing are clear-cut.
“But here they don’t know exactly what they want,” he said. “Every time a truck comes in (health officials) say ‘You need this’ but then when you come back they say ‘No you need that’ and then the next time they find something else.”
The Health Department says it is following procedures the same way it does for any food business. A statement from the department says it “encourages the development of small business across the city and at the same time works diligently to help ensure public health in the areas of food safety and sanitation.”
Wiesen, who makes freshly fried gourmet doughnuts on his Beavers Coffee + Donuts truck, must operate on private property until he gets his onboard cooking license. The last hurdle, he said, is a requirement to contract with a licensed local commissary for a host of daily services including wastewater and grease disposal. No such licensed facilities exist, he said.
But recently the Tribune confirmed that Triple A Services Inc. near Bridgeport is now licensed for such services. And the shared kitchen facility Kitchen Chicago (out of which Wiesen works) near Grand and Chicago avenues may also be eligible to serve as a commissary, though co-owner Alexis Leverenz hadn’t been aware of it because of a miscommunication.
Leverenz and Wiesen said they would inquire further to see if he could start cooking his doughnuts on the street.
To avoid miscommunications, some truck operators have suggested that the city appoint a liaison for a time to help them navigate the licensing maze — one that no one has yet completed.
“It’s confusing as all hell,” said Rich Levy, who recently shut down his Haute Sausage truck operation after unsuccessfully trying to renew his license under the new rules. “(The Health Department) shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to safety matters, but they should also be reasonable. They should be working with us, not against us. They should be helpful to entrepreneurs in this city, not hurtful.”