On February 4, the day they were scheduled to talk about the possibility of reforming the city’s mobile food vendor regulations, 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley kept Phillip Foss waiting at the entrance of her office for about an hour.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in the chef’s proposal to vitalize the city’s street-food scene. But when Foss arrived she was making frantic phone calls to the city’s health department, trying to stop inspectors from destroying thousands of dollars worth of fruit puree at West Town’s Kitchen Chicago. Some of the shared commercial kitchen’s clients—including Flora Lazar of Flora’s Confections, who’d made the puree—sell their products at the Green City Market, which is in Daley’s ward.
That incident, a result of the city’s inconsistent interpretation of the kitchen’s licensing requirements, was a nadir in its relationship with small food businesses, and underscored widely held suspicions in the food community that the city is at best clueless and at worst outright hostile to new business models.
Foss, the executive chef at the Palmer House Hilton’s fine-dining restaurant, Lockwood, could see how his proposal might present a similar challenge to city regulators.
He’d developed it during a forced lull at work. In December Foss—whose acerbic and sometimes ribald wit can be sampled on his blog, the Pickled Tongue, and Twitter feed—had openly castigated a server on his Facebook page. The union that represents the Hilton’s hotel workers complained to management, and the chef was given a one-week suspension from the restaurant.
“I had a couple of warnings,” he says. “It was deserved, but it got me thinking, ‘I got a family here. I better have a backup plan.’ I didn’t even know if I’d have a job at the end of the week.”
He did have an idea for a fast-food concept—gourmet meatballs—and had already gone so far as to trademark a name, Meatyballs. He thought he could make a go of it as a food truck, but when he got a look at how prohibitive the city’s municipal code is on the subject, he started cold-calling City Council members.
Food trucks and pushcarts aren’t illegal in Chicago, but they’re heavily restricted. You can’t do any cooking, cutting, or food preparation of any kind on board: everything must be precooked and packaged in a licensed kitchen. You can’t stop anywhere for more than two hours, and you can’t sell anything after 10 PM. So while a handful of businesses like Edgewater’s Vee-Vee’s African Restaurant are able to operate trucks above the radar, serving prepackaged meals to cabbies and others on the go, others that prepare food onboard are doing it illegally.
A couple weeks ago Time Out Chicago reported on a food truck vendor, Troy Marcus Johnson, who was issued a restaurant license by a health department inspector for his food truck, Chicago All Fired Up. Johnson interpreted that as a license to cook onboard and sell fried chicken and rib tips outside various nightclubs after the 10 PM curfew. But the news of his operation seemed to take the city’s health department and Department of Business Affairs and Licensing by surprise. At press time spokesman Tim Hadac said the health department is conducting a review of how Johnson got licensed in the first place and deciding what to do about him.
Could anyone else follow Johnson’s lead and get a restaurant license for a food truck?
“I don’t think so,” said Hadac. “If you’re clear about the fact that you’re gonna be cooking on your truck—that’s not something we would approve of. But that’s not to say the law won’t change.”
In the past few years there’s been an explosion of chef-driven food trucks all over the country. In New York, the La Cense Beef Burger Truck griddles patties made from grass-fed Black Angus cattle raised on its own Montana ranch. In Los Angeles, Kogi BBQ—the granddaddy of the food-truck movement—tweets the locations of its four trucks to followers willing to wait in long lines for calamari tacos and short-rib-kimchi quesadillas. Even cities smaller than Chicago, such as Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Austin, Texas, have food trucks. Earlier this month Minneapolis joined the club with the passage of a food-truck ordinance.
Their notable absence in Chicago isn’t for lack of able-bodied entrepreneurs. You can’t throw a soggy hot dog bun around here without hitting a chef who has a wild-eyed dream of escaping his hot, cramped restaurant kitchen for a hot, cramped food truck. Cary Taylor of the Southern, for instance, wants his own mac ‘n’ cheese mobile. But “there’re a zillion other things that you could do, and it could bring a new culinary identity to Chicago,” he says. “Think about a pierogi truck—that would be badass.”
Former Alinea chef de cuisine Jeff Pikus, now at Perennial, returned from a trip to Vietnam last year with an ambitious plan for a multivehicle fleet serving banh mi, bao, and bun—Vietnamese sandwiches, buns, and rice noodles. “Confident that I had a fairly good idea,” he e-mailed me, “I kept going, scouring the health department code; searching for a loophole, a way to circumvent the ‘preprepared’ and ‘prepackaged’ stipulation. I even considered revising my original plan to somehow fit within the law. Nothing really seemed to add up, and I set it aside.”
Another chef, who wants to remain nameless, had a business plan, investors, a licensed kitchen for prep work, and a truck all lined up and ready to roll. He was even prepared to give notice at the internationally famous restaurant where he works. But he never pulled the trigger because he couldn’t get a straight answer from the city about whether he’d be able to pull his idea off legally.
The only alderman who returned Foss’s calls was Vi Daley. She took a look at the proposal he’d written and set up a meeting with two others, Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), and Tom Tunney (44th), along with Norma Reyes, commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
Foss’s proposal was brief but compelling: “Food trucks will bring in considerable revenue for the city, and offer relatively inexpensive business opportunities to citizens in a time of economic downturn.” It suggested a pilot program with a limited number of permits granted by lottery, to see how it worked before permanent legislation was enacted.
Daley was interested in seeing a pilot program run under the auspices of Green City Market, where she serves on the board of directors. So Foss and market manager Mark Psilos began talking about the possibilities of rolling out a truck, staffed by guest chefs, that could potentially travel to various parts of the city and generate revenue for the market. Plans were made to approach the city’s health department.
Unbeknownst to them, at around the same time an unemployed chef named Matt Maroni had pitched his own proposal to 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack: a 43-page comparative study of food-truck policies in six other cities and a model ordinance for Chicago that would allow truck operators to cook fresh food a la minute for their customers. He and his wife, Melina, also compiled a fat binder of supplementary materials, including news articles on the trend, truck specs, and the actual municipal codes governing food trucks in the cities studied.
Like Foss, Maroni came around to the idea during a low point in his career. After getting fired as executive chef for the private Mid-America Club in October (for having a drink with a customer at the end of his shift, he says; club management declined to comment), he interviewed for work at other restaurants, but nothing came of it. He worked on a restaurant concept, but then his partner’s wife got cancer and that plan fell through.
His own concept for a truck is flatbreads—with various toppings, like short ribs and pork belly—which he believes he could make work under existing legislation. But his proposal would significantly liberalize the rules on “mobile food dispensers,” in the language of the city’s municipal code. He points out that the city already issues temporary permits for street vendors to prepare food at festivals and special events, and that these are subject to regulations similar to those that govern food handling and sanitation practices in regular restaurants. Why couldn’t they also be applied to food trucks?
In his scheme, applicants would submit a business plan to the city, including a menu and a blueprint of the truck, detailing specs for equipment, counter space, sinks, storage, waste disposal, ventilation, window dimensions, a power source, plumbing, and a source of potable running water.
Operators would be required to keep a cleaning schedule as well as a travel and location schedule, and would be subject to both regular and surprise inspections. Trucks would be required to have hot running water and hand sinks, and would have to prep all their food—but not necessarily cook or finish it—in a licensed kitchen, a practice that could easily accommodate a number of truck operators, particularly if the city could work out its shared-kitchen policy.
When out on the street, trucks would be required to park within 200 feet of an accessible bathroom, and Maroni envisions trade relationships where truck operators would agree to feed the staff of standing businesses in exchange for potty privileges, as is done in Los Angeles. Trucks would continue to be barred within certain distances of brick-and-mortar restaurants—a common point of controversy in other cities. Finally, Maroni came up with a schedule of license fees and detailed specifications for equipment.
When Foss and Maroni got wind of each other as a result of the reporting of this story, they put their heads together. Maroni launched an advocacy Web site, chicagofoodtrucks.com, and invited public comment via Twitter, and Foss introduced him to Psilos. Maroni drew up a business plan for a pilot Green City Market food truck, including a detailed spreadsheet outlining start-up costs, cash flow, marketing, and potential revenues under a number of different scenarios. “I kind of just write concepts when I’m bored,” Maroni says. Psilos began lobbying Green City Market board members for support. Meanwhile, Waguespack, Maroni’s alderman, called another meeting with aldermen Daley, Reilly, and Tunney (who sent a staffer in his place).
What emerged from this summit is an even clearer picture of the many roadblocks a new food-truck ordinance could face, not just from the city’s regulatory agencies but from the City Council as well. Apart from questions about health and sanitation issues—bathrooms, hand washing, issues of access to the public way—three of the aldermen had concerns specific to their ward that may or may not end up seasoning whatever sausage gets made. And there are 47 more where they came from.
Reilly was invited into the discussion because he’s been approached by food-cart vendors who want to operate in his downtown ward. He grew up eating street food in New York City and says it’s something he’d like to see introduced on a pilot basis to convince “the city department heads and the mayor that it’s not going to turn the world upside down.” But he adds that he’s had problems with garbage accumulating around downtown cab stands serviced by existing food trucks. If they’re going to be tested in his ward he wants them to be stationary, in predetermined locations that would be easy to inspect, wouldn’t compete with existing restaurants, and would help to keep in check the occasionally vicious territoriality among truck operators—everything from fistfights to vandalism—that has at times arisen in other cities.
Tunney, according to staffer Bennett Lawson, doesn’t want to see food trucks operating around Wrigley Field, and as a restaurant owner himself he’s not likely to want to see a cinnamon bun truck parked outside Ann Sather.
Alderman Daley doesn’t want new legislation to make it easy for well-financed, high-end chefs to get licensed at the expense of eloteros and fruteros. The City Council has a history of alternately tolerating and cracking down on pushcart vendors. How would it justify issuing, say, Rick Bayless a permit for a taco truck while denying a permit to a recent immigrant who just wants to slice some mangos or dust some corn in chile and cheese?
Even if elected officials take up the cause, there’s a thicket of city departments that will want to have input on a food truck ordinance. Consider what happened last December when Ketel One Vodka hired Rita Gutekanst of Limelight Catering to operate a tricked-out food truck for a couple nights on Rush Street to promote responsible drinking. Bayless turned over some taco and torta recipes to Gutekanst, and she got busy filling out applications for the Mayor’s Office of Special Events to approve a location for the event. As the date approached and she couldn’t get anyone to call her back, she applied to the Park District for a permit to operate in Mariano Park, in the heart of the Viagra Triangle.
Though the Park District licenses, regulates, and inspects its own food-truck concessions separately from the city, she still had to apply for a parking permit through transportation and the police department. “I had a plan for the truck to pull up right to the curb where the street is the widest and then have the truck facing into the park,” Gutekanst says. “If there was a crowd of people they’d be in the park not on the street.”
Two days before the event, the police rejected her application on the grounds that crowds would block the sidewalk. Gutekanst ended up erecting a tent each night inside the park to give away the food. The Ketel One truck circled the blocks around Rush Street to promote its message, but didn’t serve a single torta.
On Tuesday, April 20, aldermen Daley and Waguespack met with representatives from health, business and licensing, and the law departments to talk over Maroni’s ordinance proposal. In the run-up to this meeting nearly everyone I spoke to cited the health department as the biggest hurdle to getting food truck legislation passed. But spokesman Hadac told me, “We are aware of the food truck trend” and “certainly have an open mind on any proposals related to them.”
Council members came out of the meeting sounding hopeful. Waguespack said the various department reps promised to study Maroni’s proposal and give feedback.
Additional questions had been raised, of course. How many licenses do you give out? How do you make them financially accessible to minorities and low-income applicants? How does the city handle surprise inspections? Where do you dump the wastewater from the trucks?
“Those are all legitimate issues,” says Waguespack. “You don’t want the guy doing the Dave Matthews thing. We’ll sit down again and go through each of the issues that they brought up and find resolutions for them and options so that we can keep moving forward on it. But no one said flat-out no. No one said this is a bad idea.”
There’s no telling what the departments of zoning, environment, and Streets & San will have to say—no one’s met with them yet, though that’s next on the agenda. But both Daley and Waguespack are hopeful something will eventually go through. It’s just going to take a while. Waguespack figures it won’t happen before the end of the year.
Foss and Maroni are going full steam ahead anyway. Foss feels secure at Lockwood, but he’s still thinking about running a truck on the side with his wife—not the Meatyballs Mobile but instead something to do with kosher sandwiches. He also wants to be the first guest chef if a Green City Market truck gets the green light from both its board of directors and the city.
Maroni wants chicagofoodtrucks.com to serve as the online headquarters for a professional association of food-truck operators, where for a membership fee they’d have access to information on everything from purchasing equipment to finding locations and kitchens to operate from. He wants to install a GPS feature on the site that will allow customers to track the locations of their favorite trucks just by logging on. And he’s planning to roll out his flatbread truck, the Gaztro-Wagon (gaztro-wagon.com/Gaztro-Wagon/Home.html), whether he can cook on it or not. Last week he signed a lease on a commercial kitchen in Edgewater, and he’s installing holding ovens and refrigerators on a used postal truck he bought for $6,200.
“My thing right now is rolling out a truck to build my brand and introduce people to the idea of moving place to place,” he says. “It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process. It’s a whole new industry we’re trying to create. We’ll have to make some concessions here and there, but at the end of day I think the city will embrace it.”