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Inaugural Vendy Awards Spotlight Top Food Vendors -- and Their Challenges

By Quinn Ford | October 6, 2013 8:42am
 The inaugural "Vendy" awards crowned the "best street food vendor" in Chicago and aimed to highlight problems facing the industry.
Vendy awards
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GOOSE ISLAND — Eight of Chicago's top street food vendors duked it out Saturday afternoon for the title of best in the city.

The culinary contest, dubbed the inaugural "Vendy Awards," was organized by the Street Vendor Project, a New York-based group that advocates for the industry.

Helena Tubis, the group's managing director, said the event's purpose is to celebrate the city's food vendors and also highlight the challenges facing them. She said the rules and regulations facing Chicago's vendors made it an ideal to bring the Vendy awards.

"You know, there are some cities where it's easier to vend, and we'd love to have Vendy awards there too," Tubis said. "But it's important for us to go to the places where it's a little bit more challenging to really shed light on that."

As the event's participants served up food ranging from grilled cheese to tamales to schnitzel, they pointed out some things about the city's food truck ordinance they would like to see changed.

Falguni Dewjee, the owner of Bombay Wraps, served up what she dubbed "fast, casual" Indian wraps to hungry participants. Bombay Wraps, which opened in 2010, also has a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Loop, but Dewjee said she would like to see more locations for her food truck to set up shop around the city.

"The problem with the food trucks is the parking," Dewjee said. "We do not have too many spots we can park in, and there are more food trucks than parking spots. And that's a problem."

Leah Wilcox, who owns the Baby Cakes food truck, said she bought her truck and began serving up pancakes in 2012 as a side gig because she "became obsessed with making pancake recipes."

"Honestly, it was just like a spontaneous thing," Wilcox said. "I was like, oh it seems like it'd be a fun weekend thing. I had another job at the time."

Wilcox quit her other job to run her food truck full-time. She said she likes serving up pancakes better but said Chicago is a "tough city for food trucks."

"The operational hours are kind of weird. The tickets are higher than they should be," she said.

And Wilcox said her biggest beef is with the current ordinance's "200-foot rule," the rule stating food trucks cannot operate within 200 feet of a restaurant except between 12 and 2 a.m.

"What I'm saying is if Burger King can be next to McDonald's, why can't a food truck be next to a restaurant?" she said. "They're targeting one industry."

Another contender at Saturday's event, the Chicago Schnitzel King, is actually the plaintiff in an on-going lawsuit against the city over the current ordinance. The suit argues the 200-foot rule violates the Illinois Constitution.

The lawsuit also takes issue with the city's requirement that each food truck must have a functioning GPS onboard, as well as the fine for violating the 200-foot rule, which is up to $2,000.

Some attendees on Saturday said they came to the Vendy's to check out what Chicago's food vendor scene had to offer.

Tamara Elliott said she was happy with the choices as she chowed down on a steak pancake from Baby Cakes.

"I was excited [to come]," Elliot, who lives and works in the West Loop, said. "Where I work, I don't get to see a lot of the food trucks, so I figured hey, it'd be a good chance to see some."

Lana Layne, said she sees food trucks near her job in the Loop all the time but said she opts for mobile meal maybe once a month.

"Even though I do see them, I don't eat at them a lot," she said. "For the money you pay, it's a decent size. I don't know why I don't do it more."

Elliot said maybe that would change in the future.

"Some cities just do it better," she said. "Chicago's probably just trying to get its footing in the food truck business."

But not every Vendy finalist operated a food truck. Yoland Cannon's Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales stand stays put in the Austin neighborhood, he said.

Cannon, who has lived in Chicago since 1997, said he got the recipe from a "secret source in the family" in Mississippi where he was born and raised.

"It's a Mississippi thang, and I got to say 'thang,'" Cannon said of his hot tamales. "It's a tradition in the South. It was going on before I was born."

Another stationary food stand, Olga's Snacks, which served up chicharrones, was announced the winner of the first Vendy awards after bringing in the most votes.

Although it was Olga's who won, other finalists said they were thrilled to involved.

Art Jackson, the owner of Pleasant House Bakery that specializes in "British-inspired savory pies," said at the beginning of Saturday's event he was happy to see an event like the Vendy's come to Chicago.

"It's a thrill," Jackson said, adding he had read about the awards in cities like New York and Philadelphia. "It's always cool when Chicago gets recognized and gets to be part of these great things that happen in other places around the country."