Food truck owner fights for fairness, opportunity in Chicago

Food truck owner fights for fairness, opportunity in Chicago

Regulations have burned the Windy City’s once-promising food truck sector. One mobile restaurateur hopes to change that.

As winter rolls in, it’s tough to be a food truck operator. But for culinary entrepreneurs doing business in Chicago, the weather is the least of one’s worries.

While food trucks have flourished in cities across the country, the city of Chicago has treated the takeout-on-wheels trend with striking hostility. But the proprietor of pastry food truck Cupcakes for Courage has taken her fight to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing the unconstitutionality of regulations that have all but swept her business off the street.

“I don’t operate it day-to-day in the City of Chicago any longer, mostly for just private events and festivals,” owner Laura Pekarik told CBS Chicago, “because it was incredibly increasingly difficult to park and find a place for my drivers to go to.”

Chicago food truck operators have encountered increasing difficulty doing business since 2012, when City Council passed a law allowing food truck operators to prepare food onboard for sale, but imposing restrictions on their operations. Those restrictions include prohibiting food trucks from parking within 200 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant, requiring trucks to install GPS tracking devices, forbidding trucks from parking in privately owned vacant lots, and providing a mere two-hour window in which trucks can operate in a parking spot before relocating.

By drawing restrictive boundaries around where and how food trucks may operate on public streets, the law unfairly discriminates against some of Chicago’s most promising culinary entrepreneurs.

The consequences of this regulation have manifested in the vanishing number of food trucks operating in the Windy City. The number of food trucks operating in Chicago has declined sharply in the wake of the city’s crackdown, according to Illinois Food Truck Association President Gabe Wiesen.

Moreover, these food truck rules are a bad deal for the city. By discouraging business activity, the city inhibits economic growth and decreases the potential for generating new sources of tax revenue. For a city with floundering finances, this is a high price for satiating the food truck industry’s competitors.

Cupcakes for Courage, founded by Laura Pekarik and her sister, Kathryn, arose out of the two sisters’ passion for baking, and the comfort it provided them while Kathryn battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They initially sold cupcakes at a bake sale to raise money to cover Kathryn’s medical expenses; now, the business donates part of its proceeds to fund cancer research and local nonprofits.

With Kathryn now in remission, the medical story, fortunately, has ended happily. The legal story’s outcome, however, remains to be seen.

A Cook County Circuit Court judge upheld the Chicago ordinance in 2016. That same year, an Institute for Justice analysis found that in the Loop, one of Chicago’s busiest districts, food trucks are restricted to a mere 3 percent of the curb space.

Laura Pekarik, represented by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, is seeking to have these onerous food truck regulations overturned on appeal. Pekarik’s attorney, who appeared before the First District Appellate Court, argued that requiring 200 feet between food trucks and other food establishments is unconstitutional and anti-competitive.

CBS quoted a Chicago Law Department spokesman who said, “[T]he food truck ordinance and regulations strike the right balance between the interests of food trucks and those of restaurants.” But this notion is belied by the fact that, while restaurants in the city have continued to thrive since 2012, the number of food trucks in the city has dropped. The Chicago Reader notes that there were roughly 70 Chicago food trucks as late as March 2017, down from an estimated 130 to 140 in 2012, when the ordinance was passed.

As Small Business Saturday fades in the rearview mirror, it bears repeating that politicians’ treatment of small-business owners scarcely matches their rhetoric. And food truck operators are no exception.

Local lawmakers would be wise to establish a policy climate that kicks food trucks into gear – rather than driving them out of business.

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