Restaurant group demands protection from food truck competition in Chicago

Restaurant group demands protection from food truck competition in Chicago

A trade organization is seeking to insulate the restaurant industry from competition in an Illinois Supreme Court battle over Chicago’s food truck regulations.

While encouraging the Illinois Supreme Court to uphold Chicago’s food truck regulations – regulations that squeeze out popular mobile food vendors – the Illinois Restaurant Association denies that it is seeking protection from competition.

The Illinois Restaurant Association, or IRA, recently filed an amicus brief in support of the city of Chicago in the case of LMP Services, Inc. v. City of Chicago, arguing that protecting the industry from food truck competition is a “legitimate governmental purpose.” An amicus brief is a legal filing by someone not party to a case, but with an interest in the outcome, offering information and expertise in hopes of influencing the court’s decision.

The Illinois Supreme Court announced May 30 that it will hear a challenge to Chicago’s food truck regulations. Laura Pekarik, who co-founded Cupcakes for Courage with her sister Kathryn, first brought this legal challenge against the city in 2012 with the help of the Institute for Justice. 

The legal challenge takes issue with two onerous Chicago ordinances regulating food trucks. According to the “200-foot rule,” no food truck may park within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar establishments that serve or sell food – a blatant attempt to insulate the restaurant industry from competition. Especially in dense and highly trafficked neighborhoods, this can often preclude food trucks from doing business entirely.

Also at question is the city’s requirement for food trucks to install a GPS tracking device, thereby likely violating their Fourth Amendment right to due process and protection against unreasonable searches. To enforce the 200-foot rule and other regulations, the city requires all food trucks licensed in Chicago to report their location once every five minutes, and make location history available upon request – without a court order or procedural protections.

At the core of the IRA’s argument is that competition from food trucks will harm both the economic wellbeing of the restaurant industry and the city’s coffers through diminished tax revenue as food trucks “siphon off” customers.

In its court filing, the IRA argues that in the absence of these regulations, “unscrupulous food truck vendors” had “lured customers away from the restaurants to the truck’s window.” Despite numerous court precedent at all levels, including the Illinois Supreme Court, holding against blatant economic favoritism, the IRA maintains the city may create “economic legislation to protect the reliance interests of one group over another.”

In August, the Liberty Justice Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Illinois Policy Institute in support of food truck owners. The brief detailed how the city’s heavy-handed food truck ordinances were the product of “politically connected owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants worried about competing with these new food trucks.” These ordinances have succeeded in stifling competition, pushing entrepreneurs like Greg Burke and Kristin Casper, the couple behind Schnitzel King, out of the city.

Another amicus brief filed jointly by the Illinois Food Truck Owners Association, the National Food Truck Association and the Cato Institute makes clear that the empirical data do not support the IRA’s conclusion.

Among other studies cited in the amicus brief is an Illinois Policy Institute study, which found that restrictive mobile vending regulation costs thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in earnings.

The IRA also calls the 200-foot rule a “balanced approach” – a characterization many food truck owners and customers would take issue with. Despite setting aside parking locations specifically for food trucks, the 200-foot rule still prevents food trucks from operating. Only 3 percent of Chicago’s downtown Loop is legally operable for food trucks.

“We are on one of the only streets in the city of Chicago that falls [outside of] the 200-foot rule,” Jeff Doornbos, owner of American Glory Food Truck explained at the intersection of Wacker and Adams. “These food trucks, the owners, are fighting for these spaces because it is prime real estate in the city.”

Due to restrictive and unconstitutional policies such as the 200-foot rule, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Chicago’s food truck regulations among the worst in the nation. Chicago’s food truck presence was cut in half between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Chamber report.

Regardless of what industry groups may claim, the arguments in favor of restrictive food truck regulations are rife with pure economic protectionism. While a ruling is yet to come, the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case suggests cautious optimism on the future of city’s food truck regulations.

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