Study: Chicago’s regulatory roadblocks stifle the city’s food trucks

Study: Chicago’s regulatory roadblocks stifle the city’s food trucks

The country is enjoying a food truck boom, but overbearing regulations threaten the industry. According to a new study, Chicago’s regulatory burden is among the worst.

The surging popularity of food trucks has been a service industry hallmark in recent years. But local governments’ response to this ingenuity has varied widely from city to city, and the message Chicago has sent to such restaurateurs is a discouraging one.

Compared to the treatment of brick-and-mortar restaurants that feed the city’s celebrated dining scene, their four-wheeled counterparts are dealt a heavy hand. A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, titled Food Truck Nation, found that, among the cities with the highest density of food trucks, Chicago’s regulatory burden on food truck operators is one of the most prohibitive.

The findings show that food trucks face a diverse regulatory landscape across the country. But for anyone who values economic opportunity and consumer choice, Chicago’s results will yield a bitter aftertaste. The study placed the Windy City at a lukewarm 13th on the index of the 20 cities studied, highlighting burdensome parking restrictions and a prolonged licensure process.

Billed as “the most comprehensive study ever conducted on local food truck regulations,” the study’s findings are the result of a year’s worth of research, surveying nearly 300 food truck proprietors and analyzing local ordinances governing them.

In Chicago’s case, the most burdensome restrictions appear designed not to limit health and safety risks on behalf of consumers, but rather to limit the competition of newcomers on behalf of other producers. Proximity laws prohibit food trucks from operating within 200 feet – “roughly the wingspan of a 747 Jumbo Jet” – of the front door to any physical space in which food is sold, according to the study. This includes not only restaurants, but grocery stores and vending machines as well. The proximity and parking regulations mean just a mere 3 percent of Chicago’s downtown Loop is legally operable for food trucks.

Along with just Boston, the study’s lowest-ranking city, Chicago requires food truck operators to install a GPS tracking device and report their location every five minutes, and maintain documentation of their location history going back six months. While this stored information is demanded for public health purposes, the study found that city officials have never actually accessed it. The city also demands records documenting every ingredient for each menu item, including for pre-packaged goods, and changes to menu items prompt inspection visits.

While the study applauds Chicago’s user-friendly online licensing resource, aspiring food truck operators can expect “one of the most extensive processes to obtain a permit,” requiring 19 trips to the offices of government agencies. And time isn’t the only price: The first year in business will cost nearly $32,500 in operations costs and more than $2,700 just to obtain the required licenses and permits.

“Chicago’s food truck scene appears to be stalling out due to onerous regulations,” the study cautions, pointing to the latest legal setback for the industry in December 2017. Ruling on a 2012 lawsuit the proprietor of the Cupcakes for Courage food truck brought against the city of Chicago, an Illinois appeals court panel upheld the Cook County Circuit Court’s earlier ruling in favor of the city’s proximity and GPS requirements. The case will be appealed before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, many in the industry have already taken the hint. The food truck presence in Chicago has been halved in the years since the lawsuit was filed. Portland, which topped the study’s list, has a larger number of active food trucks, despite having less than a quarter of the population.

Chicago’s enviable dining scene stands to lose, not gain, from the city’s throttling of competition and disregard for consumer tastes. The growth of food trucks in Portland has coincided with an overall business sector growth nearly double that of Chicago’s between 2011-2015, according to the study. Likewise, the city of Portland enjoyed a 9 percent population boost from 2010-2016, during which Chicago  only grew 0.4 percent, according to the study.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data show that, among the nation’s 10 largest metro areas, Chicago’s was the only one to see its population decline from July 2016 to July 2017.

The food truck sector reached record revenues in 2017, estimated at $2.7 billion nationwide, according to the study. That represents a 300 percent revenue increase in the last three years alone. But Chicago’s restrictive policy approach toward such opportunity has, in turn, restricted its share of the growth.

Food trucks offer economic opportunity to small-scale entrepreneurs with minimal capital. Chicago’s attitude toward mobile vendors signals a broader inflexibility toward entrepreneurship. Local lawmakers would be wise to loosen the city’s grip on the burgeoning food truck sector, and instead pursue policies that accommodate innovation and bring more people into the workforce.

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