Chicago, IL:Chicago’s Gourmet Food Trucks on A Bumpy Road to Growth

Michelle Kim/MEDILL Customers line up at the Fat Shallot during lunchtime in the Loop.

By Michelle Kim  |  Medill Reports Chicago

Michelle Kim/MEDILL Check out which food trucks to visit based on what you're craving.
Michelle Kim/MEDILL
Check out which food trucks to visit based on what you’re craving.

After almost two difficult years of operating her food truck, DuckNRoll, Amy Le shut it down and opened Saucy Porka, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant in the South Loop. She said the city of Chicago’s onerous rules surrounding food trucks were partly to blame.

“Sometimes I wish somebody would have told me the reality, then I would have thought twice about it,” Le said. “I was one of the most popular food trucks. We were not making a profit for the first four to five months, and we were at every event.”

The foodie culture surrounding gourmet food trucks in Chicago and elsewhere has been a draw for trained chefs who aspire to start their own businesses and for customers who can sample up-and-coming cuisine.

“It’s nearby and the food is delicious,” said Khalil Wehbi, while waiting in line at the Fat Shallot food truck at lunchtime in the Loop. “The truffle fries are incredible, so I’m here to get more of those.”  The Fat Shallot’s chef, Sam Barron, has worked as a chef for the past decade, including eateries in Spain and New Orleans, and hopes to open his own restaurant.

But despite its thriving foodie culture, Chicago is behind other cities in the gourmet food truck industry.

Of the 120 gourmet food trucks in Chicago, according to the city, 20 are licensed to cook on-board. By comparison, Cleveland has 49 trucks licensed to cook on-board. Indianapolis, a much smaller city, has a total of 90 licensed food trucks. Los Angeles, with its warm year-round climate, has more than 250 licensed food trucks.

In Chicago, strict conditions for mobile food vendors impede growth, Le said, such as a two-hour service limit in one designated spot, parking at least 200 feet away from any brick-and-mortar restaurants and installing a GPS tracking device.

“Chicago is a tough city to operate a food truck,” Le said. “Even though the city passed the ordinance last July for on-board cooking, it was not an ordinance that would change the landscape of the food truck business.”

For one thing, Chicago food trucks that cook on on-board are prohibited from holding more than 40 pounds of propane in the vehicle.

“For a food truck, 40 pounds is not enough,” Sarah Weitz, co-owner of the Fat Shallot, said. “Unfortunately, when it’s cold outside, propane doesn’t vaporize as quickly and our tanks freeze. Instead of changing my propane tank every two services, I have to change it every service.”

David Staudacher, information coordinator for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the city has supported the food truck industry with various opportunities, such as including them in the Taste of Chicago, Chicago’s Fashion Week, the city’s first Food Truck Rally at Daly Plaza and holiday caroling at the Bean in Millennium Park.

“The city of Chicago wants this industry to thrive, create jobs and add to Chicago’s vibrant food culture,” Staudacher said. “We don’t see this as a competition. Every city is unique and we all have different food cultures, climates, populations and different requirements for food trucks.”

In November 2012, three Chicago-area food truck entrepreneurs, Greg Burke and Kristin Casper of Schnitzel King and Laura Pekarik of Cupcakes for Courage, teamed up with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice to sue the city over the 200-foot parking restriction and the GPS requirement.

“I think that’s the sole reason that these regulations exist,” said Robert Frommer, an attorney of the Institute of Justice. “A few restaurants went to try to seek special favors from the government. The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking losers and winners, that’s the job of consumers.”

Frommer added he’s confident the city will back down and said he expects the case to wrap up next summer. The first legal challenge to food truck ordinances through the Institute for Justice was in El Paso, Texas, where food trucks had to be operating 1,000 feet away from restaurants.

“Food trucks are a symbol of the American dream,” Frommer said. “They give people who are willing to work hard and without a lot of capital a way to succeed by satisfying hungry consumers. Cities should be celebrating and not trying to muscle them out in favor of politically connected restaurants.”

Like many food truck owners, Fidotogo owner Donna Santucci believes if food trucks and restaurants worked together, it would create more business without hurting either side.

“Anywhere that sells dog products, I can’t be 200 feet from them,” Santucci said. “But also my friends own the stores and we’ve been friends in the industry for so long, we all know each other. So it’s different because we do a lot of cross-promoting. When you do that, you end up creating more business.”

Eliminating barriers is something other cities have done. Kevin Schmotzer, executive of small business development of the Department of Economic Development in Cleveland, worked to rewrite its business license legislation to accommodate both sides of the food truck issue.

Michelle Kim/MEDILL Customers line up at the Fat Shallot during lunchtime in the Loop.
Michelle Kim/MEDILL
Customers line up at the Fat Shallot during lunchtime in the Loop.

“The common goal is to play in the sandbox together,” Schmotzer said. “It’s small business entrepreneurship. If you’re going to make it, why put on ridiculous restrictions that don’t work. A 200-foot zone would eliminate a lot of things for food trucks.”

Indianapolis has also worked to minimize restrictions.

“We just don’t come up with overregulation of any business, only when it’s necessary to improve the quality of life or to ensure citizens are safe and getting what they paid for,” said Adam Baker, communications director of the Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement. “The food trucks have been good at self-regulating themselves. Fifteen trucks don’t pull up to one stop.”

Roaming Hunger, a Los Angeles-based company that keeps track of about 4,000 mobile food vendors, said gourmet food trucks originated on the West coast and in the Northeast, later picking up in the South where the weather is warm year-round.

In a tough environment like Chicago, Le said it’s important for food truck owners to develop different revenue streams, such as through catering or corporate sponsorships, because it’s hard for a food truck to make a profit as a stand-alone business.

“It was a struggle every month to try to generate revenue and keep afloat,” Le said. But she has no regrets, since DucknRoll was a stepping stone to starting her own restaurant.

“I wouldn’t have Saucy Porka if I didn’t have the truck,” Le said. “We probably wouldn’t have the same foot traffic if we didn’t have the truck.”