The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Deregulating The Mobile Food Industry: A (Libertarian) Symposium On Food Trucks

By Staff in Food on Apr 18, 2012 8:40PM

At 1:30 p.m. this past Saturday in the University of Chicago Law School parking lot, you could buy everything from duck sausage to meatball subs to frozen yogurt for less than 10 dollars each out of a truck. They had gathered outside the law school as part of the “My Streets, My Eats” symposium on mobile food vending hosted by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, an organization that has long advocated for deregulation in the food industry that would allow for more openings in the market for up-and-comers. The Bridgeport Pasty mobile, which was dishing out thick, crusty meat pies, has been operated by a couple team out of Bridgeport since since September 2011. Pleasant House Bakery opened in the same neighborhood in May 2011. Jay Sebastian, who sold me a belly warming chicken potpie, says it was a coincidence, and they’ve never had any tension.

It was fear of just that kind of competition, however, that has driven much of the opposition to food trucking in this city, and consequently, was the focus of much of the discussion at Saturday’s symposium. Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice who participated in the symposium, co-authored a study called, “Street of Dreams: How Cities can Create Economic Opportunity by Knocking Down Protectionist Barriers to Street Vending.” Gall argues that supposed health and safety concerns regarding food trucks—the most frequently mentioned are the freshness of the food and street congestion—are really government’s not so subtle attempts at concealing economic protectionism of brick-and-mortar restaurants. It’s worth mentioning that the Institute for Justice is funded by Koch Family Foundations, which also funds the libertarian Cato Institute. Many remarked that the free-wheeling food truck crowd and buttoned-up libertarian lawyers make strange bedfellows, and a few symposium attendees joked that the whole event was a ruse to convert hip, young Chicagoans into proponents of deregulation, and that we would all soon be receiving emails about the evils of Obamacare.

While the Institute’s work in favor of mobile vending has been productive so far, it’s clear that it’s overwhelmingly the will of the wealthy restaurant owners and lobbies that have kept these restrictive laws on the books. Even as other cities have reduced regulations on food trucks, Chicago alone retains a law that prohibits the preparation of food on board a moving vehicle. Supposedly, this law is in place out of consideration for citizen health and safety, but many symposium attendees made the point that serving reheated food that has been sitting on a truck for an hour doesn’t seem particularly healthful. “Sometimes,” Gall said regarding moving Chicago towards a more vibrant mobile vending scene, “you just have to sue the bastards.”

In Los Angeles, a rule was instituted that food trucks could not park in a single location for more than 30 minutes. Deputy Counsel to the Mayor Gregg Kettles said that when the recession hit in 2008, there was an increased outcry from restaurant owners to enforce the law. The state of California, however, ruled that the law was unconstitutional, because it was predicated not on the health and safety of customers, but on making it easier for brick-and-mortar restaurants to earn money. Kettles showed a number of photos of a neighborhood in L.A. where more than 70 gourmet food trucks will gather in a single night, selling food and creating a festive atmosphere. While the vibrant scene is clearly a source of pride for L.A. and envy for food truck supporters here, Kettles did reference one incident in which a toddler was run over and killed at a food truck event, underscoring the idea that there is some reality to concerns about safety.

Comparing the situation in Chicago to other cities is tricky, because, as Avi Schwab, who tweets about food trucks regularly at @uchinomgo, put it, Chicago doesn’t have the same pre-existing mobile food culture that other cities do. Kettles explained how in L.A. industrial lunch trucks morphed into popular taco trucks that would park in a single location and draw customers from the surrounding neighborhood. In New York, mobile hot dog stands have long been a part of the urban fabric. In Chicago, however, mobile food vending has been minimal since Mayor Daley’s “clean up the streets” efforts during the 1990s, and wide, barren sidewalks, especially downtown, have become a fixture of the city’s character. More than other cities, therefore, the rising prevalence of food trucks in Chicago has the capacity to change how we use the city.

Kettles, for example, in his research on L.A., found that food trucks make neighborhoods safer by putting eyes on the street, a concept that was first introduced to urban planning by Jane Jacobs in 1961. Of course, traditional urban planning pertains only to built space, to the roads, sidewalks, shops, parks and residences that make up a city and can be mapped out before they are constructed. What is exciting about food trucks is that they are unpredictable, and can change the rhythm of a city or neighborhood as they come and go, which led one symposium attendee to wonder aloud how property owners and realtors feel about the mobile vending trend.

Interestingly, the concern that brick-and-mortar restaurants are threatened by the success of food trucks is largely unfounded. Data from the Institute for Justice suggests very few restaurants lose customers on account of food trucks, and nobody can point to the closure of a single establishment due to a successful mobile food vending effort. Baylen Linnekin, founder of Keep Food Legal, joked that while it is convenient that data suggests food trucks aren’t a threat to restaurants, he wouldn’t be concerned if they were, because competition should be unregulated no matter what. “That’s America. Live with it.”

Nonetheless, it is clearly the restaurant lobbyists in this city who have slowed legal progress for food trucks, and made sure that current food safety ordinance remain in place. “If you need protection from a food truck, maybe you weren’t a great restaurant to begin with,” joked Bert Gall to a round of applause. Food truck drivers say that vending downtown is difficult because the police are constantly monitoring them and forcing them to move, which is why fringe neighborhoods like Hyde Park are increasingly becoming happy havens for food truckers.

Despite gray skies and occasional drizzle, at least 50 hungry residents who had not attended the morning talks showed up to chow down on cupcakes, empanadas, and tamales. So many came, in fact, that the be-masked and sombrero-ed proprietor of the Tamale Spaceship had to close down early, having actually run out of tamales. With half a dozen toddlers rolling down hills on the Law School lawn and couples with puppies enjoying cupcakes and frozen yogurt dotting the grass, the sense of community was rather idyllic. Soon, perhaps, we will see Chicagoans spending more afternoons sprawled out, munching on designer tacos. When asked why he hasn’t sued Chicago yet, if its regulations are indicative of the most egregious protectionism, Gall, who is currently based out of Washington, D.C., responded, “I really like deep dish pizza. Stay tuned.”

By Caroline O'Donovan