CHICAGO — Six months after an ordinance passed to govern food trucks, the city has yet to license a single one to cook onboard.
Yet, in spite of regulations greatly limiting their movements, threatened fines and calls for additional investments such as satellite tracking, the food-truck industry continues to grow.
"It's a huge testimony to the strength and durability of these entrepreneurs," said Alex Levine, who runs the Food Truck Freak website monitoring daily movements of the trucks and general trends in the industry from a consumer's point of view.
When she began the website in the summer of 2011, Levine was fresh out of college and sharing information with co-workers at a "boring" job she had in the West Loop. She monitored eight food trucks delivering food that had been cooked or prepared elsewhere. "And now there are 62," said Levine, who has put the site on hiatus as she prepares a redesign.
Despite the increase in offerings, Levine said public excitement over food trucks has been dampened, in large part because of the new ordinance, which not only has made it difficult to get licensed to cook onboard, but also has restricted the movements of all trucks. They are limited to designated areas, with hefty fines imposed for selling goods within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
That strikes at a key element of the appeal of food trucks, according to Levine. "People who tend to follow food trucks are not necessarily people who enjoy regularity and ordering the same thing every time," Levine said. "If they had a different food truck outside their door every day of the year, they'd be happy campers."
She said designated areas for food-truck parking tend to be relatively remote. "Yeah, they're in the main business district, but they're really in hidden corners," she said. "So, it's really ineffective."
She pointed to the slots available at 600 W. Chicago Ave. "They're still in places where people would never go," Levine said. "There are probably 100 people out there at lunchtime, as opposed to Millennium Park, where there might be thousands."
Because the same trucks rotate into the slots weekly, "It's kind of like the same thing if it were a stationary restaurant," she said.
Matt Maroni, who helped ignite the food-truck craze here with his Gaztro-Wagon and who also helped initiate the original food-truck legislation, said the 200-foot restriction was there from the beginning, "so restaurants wouldn't throw a fit, which they did."
"Certainly, the purpose [of the ordinance] was to encourage the growth of this industry," said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who called it "surprising" no license had been approved for a truck to cook onboard. At the same time, he was unapologetic about the restrictions.
"The central business district is heavily congested as it is," Reilly said. "Imagine parking a slider truck in front of Epic Burger," a business, he pointed out, that pays more in taxes and employs more people. "I'm trying to strike a very careful balance."
Maroni, who shared his experience and helped other trucks get started, has sold his truck and also left the restaurant he started, the since-shuttered Morso on Armitage. He's now chef at the Women's Athletic Club.
"The gig's good," he said. "I mean, I don't have the weight of the world on my shoulders."
Maroni said that if he still had the desire to start up a food truck, the new ordinance wouldn't dissuade him. "I don't think it's a huge failure," he said. "It's just very fine-tuned and detailed. You have to read all the fine print."
'Key parts' missing from ordinance
He said requirements such as food trucks being equipped with Global Positioning System trackers actually were intended to help the trucks. The GPS trackers were to make it easier for Health Department inspectors to track them down. "It gives them more cred on the street," he said. "It helps mobilize themselves as quality vendors.
"They're still missing a couple of key parts," Maroni added, citing the lack of so-called truck commissaries in Chicago to provide overnight parking and grease traps to drain waste.
"We're willing to help. We'd like to help," said Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. "We want to see more truck licenses, absolutely."
Lipford said two food trucks have almost completed the approval process and were awaiting final authorization from health and fire officials to receive their cook-onboard licenses, perhaps as early as next week.
Where all food trucks are concerned, however, Maroni took issue with the increased fines imposed by the City Council — $1,000 to $2,000 for breaking the 200-foot restriction and parking longer than two hours.
"The fines are definitely steep," Maroni said. "You want people to follow the rules, but they're definitely steep." His original ordinance proposal called for fines of $250 to $500.
'An oven of paranoia'
How did they get hiked? Levine testified before the City Council in the days leading up to the vote last July. "On behalf of consumers, but on the side of food trucks," she said, but arguments in favor of food trucks fell on deaf ears.
The toughened ordinance passed, 45-1, with Ald. John Arena (45th) the only vote opposed. "The brick-and-mortar restaurant lobby got ahold of it, and it was stuffed with protectionism and baked in an oven of paranoia," he said at the time.