Food Trucks

Chicago's Awful Crackdown on Food Trucks

A pair of orchestrated hit pieces from media outlets has spurred the city to hand out massive fines.


Food truck
Michel Bussieres /

Late last month, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Windy City's local ABC affiliate teamed up to produce what amounts to little more than a hit piece targeting the city's food trucks.

The joint reporting (if that's the right term) alleges that the city's food trucks have been ignoring rules Chicago drafted several years ago to regulate the city's mobile-food vending businesses. The Sun-Times and an ABC 7 I-Team Investigation both allege the trucks are parking where they shouldn't and overstaying maximum times at parking meters.

Some of the allegations may be true. Even if they are, though, it's the city's downright awful rules for regulating those trucks that are to blame here. Full stop.

Just how bad are the rules? In a 2012 column, I referred to them as "disgusting" and "nefarious" and noted they carry harsh fines of up to $2,000.

"Food trucks are severely limited in where and how long they can serve customers," wrote Diana Sroka Rickert, in a great Chicago Tribune column this week that pointed out many of the ordinance's glaring flaws. "The trucks cannot be within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants, and they're not allowed to stay in the same location longer than two hours."

And, notes Rickert, "these rules should never have become law in the first place."

There's another side, of course, and it's no surprise that the Illinois Restaurant Association, whose members are protected from competition by the law, "supports the crackdown," reports CBS Chicago.

The restaurant association claims that it "supports food trucks and was pleased to work with both the Mayor's Office and Chicago's aldermen to ensure that all parties' best interests were represented in the current ordinance." Notably, the restaurant association statement fails to include mention of, say, maybe working with the food trucks themselves, who are after all the key party here, and whose interests the Chicago ordinance flatly fails to take into account.

In November 2012, shortly after the ordinance's passage, the nonprofit Institute for Justice sued Chicago on behalf of a city food truck owner. The suit rightly argues that the city's food truck rules are unconstitutional.

A 1960 Illinois Supreme Court decision, Chicago Title & Trust Co. v. Village of Lombard, struck down as unconstitutional an ordinance that prohibited new gas stations from operating within 650 feet of existing ones.

The court—in a ruling so on-point it hurts—found no such basis existed under rules that served only to protect existing filling stations from competition from new entrants and that failed to have any basis in protecting the health, safety, or welfare of residents.

"Under the police power of the State new burdens may be imposed upon property and new restrictions placed upon its use when the public welfare demands it," the state's high court ruled in Chicago Title & Trust. "The police power is, however, limited to enactments having reference to the public health, safety, comfort and welfare."

"Chicago's food truck rules are some of the worst in the nation," IJ's Robert Frommer, the lead attorney in the case challenging Chicago's rules, told me this week. "They exist not to protect public safety but the bottom line of a few well connected businesses."

A judge is set to hear oral arguments on cross-motions for summary judgment in the food-truck case next month.

Soon after the Sun-Times and ABC7 reports, at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city began handing out $1,000 tickets to food truck operators. The mayor, wrote the author of the Sun-Times article in a follow-up piece, "promise[d] to do what his own administration has failed to do: Issue a blitzkrieg of citations and fines against food truck owners caught thumbing their noses at the city's much-ballyhooed ordinance."

Blitzkriegs and ballyhoos reminds me of a fantastic Echo & the Bunnymen song. But it doesn't make the Chicago ordinance any less awful, or any less unconstitutional.

In speaking with him this week, IJ's Frommer noted something I have as well, namely "that the size of Chicago's food truck industry is dwarfed by those in cities with good laws."

Consider that Chicago, a city that boasts more than 2.7 million residents, has an estimated 60-70 mobile food trucks. That's roughly one food truck for every 42,000 residents.

Washington, D.C., by contrast, has around 660,000 residents. But the District, which updated its food truck rules with better ones several years ago, has more than 100 food trucks, according to DC Food Truck Association membership data. That translates to roughly one truck for every 6,600 residents, or nearly seven times more food trucks per capita than you'll find in Chicago today.

That wasn't supposed to be the case under Chicago's rules. Mayor Emanuel, who co-sponsored the 2012 ordinance, said at the time the law would help Chicago to "finally move forward as a city."

Yet today there are roughly half the number of food trucks on the road in Chicago as there were operating when the ordinance became law.

Instead of moving Chicago forward, under Emanuel's leadership food trucks—and the city itself—seem stuck in reverse.

NEXT: Evan McMullin Gratuitously Denied Ballot Access in Florida, Because That's What the Duopoly Does

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  1. Is the restaurant association behind these pieces?

    I’m reminded of the way the unions were behind the nail salon hit pieces in New York.

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  2. Along these same lines, a great article about how Seattle killed affordable housing. And by great, I mean if this doesn’t make you pop a blood vessel and want to go kill somebody I don’t know what will.

    1. But as I posted elsewhere, the aggravating part of the article is the conclusion where he suggests there’s a simple fix for this series of screw-ups caused by government meddling – the government just needs to undo its meddling, get out of the way and let the free market work. Why not propose the simple solution of having a magical flying unicorn wave a magic wand? Government is not going to step back and keep their mitts off the situation – their whole raison d’etre is meddling. That’s how they make their money and create their power. You might as well propose that if Wendy’s really was interested in making sure people are provided with affordable hamburgers they should go out of business and leave the market to McDonald’s. Government doesn’t care so much that people get affordable housing, they care more that government is involved with providing people with affordable housing. If their involvement is what prevents people from getting affordable housing, oh, well. If government’s not providing affordable housing, they’re going to by-god make sure nobody else is either. Otherwise, people might start getting the idea that they don’t need government to manage every little bit of their lives, that maybe there are better ways to do things without government involvement, and that’s the most foul heresy government knows of.

      1. Same with Uber. Taxis are complaining they have to pay $250 000 to get a permit or something. Just remove this superficial barrier to entry and Presto! Now go compete for customer dollars.

        Supply-side economics that give way to monopolies are a scourge.

        1. Now go compete for customer dollars.

          And that, of course, is the real crux of the anti-Uber/Lyft laws that some cities are passing. The city doesn’t want to lose the permitting revenue and the taxi companies don’t want to have to compete against outsiders.

          1. Actually the laws regarding taxis came about by nearly a century of tweaking. Yes, some of the laws kept out competition, but many protect the consumer. Google Richard Dalton and know he wouldn’t have gotten past the first murder had Uber drivers been required to mark their vehicles. I know from experience driving a cab in Kalamazoo that if there’s any kind of problem, the cops will pull you over within 30-60seconds. The real problem taxi companies have is that they’re forced to obey regulations that add overhead while others are given a pass that allows them to undercut. Btw, unmarked cars picking up strangers is a serial killer’s dream come true. Bound to attract lots of sickos.

    2. A generally interesting article, but damn the use of buzzwords is irritating.

      1. Well, given the guy’s conclusion, I assume he’s something of a lefty that seriously believes the government’s main concern is providing affordable housing and they’re earnestly trying their best and just somehow have mistakenly taken the wrong path. He actually points to Seattle’s “series of mis-guided steps” – i.e., their intentions were good but they somehow wound up with bad results. No, dumbass, they accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish. Hanlon’s Razor only works the first few times they do this crap, they keep doing stupid shit long enough and you have to conclude it’s not stupid, it’s willful.

    3. Reading. Don’t know if I can get past lines like, “historic home to Seattle’s gay community,” this early in the day while I’m sober.

    4. The whole thing is also evidence is of how the worst tyranny in this country is very often local from the petty little shit stains who sit on these councils that they make into their own fiefdoms and for which a few percentage of the electorate is even aware of let alone voted for. They make decisions that will directly be a pain in your ass and generally decrease your living standards. A lot of the shit the feds do has a generally more remote impact by comparison.

      1. I am torn between thinking the worst aspect of local police powers is the meddling like this, or is it that local government is the breeding ground for state and federal meddling? How many politicians got their start by being disgusted that the wrong Top Men were meddling with zoning ordinances? They too couldn’t connect the dots and see that government itself is the problem. They only saw that they personally didn’t like the results chosen for everybody, and wanted to put their own personal opinions into effect for everybody. And what better way to do that than to make government more powerful and get themselves elected!

    5. The comments are brutal, I can’t imagine living near these people.

      1. Dana
        September 7, 2016 at 4:42 am

        This article is written by a guy who is part of the problem and the reason he is in this mess. Greedy developers have raced to the finish line to make the maximum profit while building poor-quality, ugly crap and now they whine that they can’t get around zoning laws and restrictions. They’re all saying, “look how high rent is next door. Now I’m going to have to charge that much because my investors aren’t happy with how this is penciling out. And also, I screwed up big time and tried to take advantage of a system before there were any rules hoping we would all walk away rich after we flipped it.” If they had taken a rational approach in the beginning, they wouldn’t be here. No sympathy.

        No, Dana, you’re part of the problem, you stupid fuckhead.

        1. Greedy developers have raced to the finish line to make the maximum profit while building poor-quality, ugly crap

          or, “Businesses made rational decisions to rush projects to the finish line under the current regime before it got even worse, given the trend of government meddling.”

          now they whine that they can’t get around zoning laws and restrictions

          Well, can they? I didn’t think so.

          hey’re all saying, “look how high rent is next door.

          Apparently, a market rate for the units they were forced by the government to build (if they were going to build anything).

          Now I’m going to have to charge that much because my investors aren’t happy with how this is penciling out.

          or, “Now I’m going to have charge that much to get a return on the higher investment I was forced to make by the zoning laws”.

          And also, I screwed up big time and tried to take advantage of a system before there were any rules hoping we would all walk away rich after we flipped it

          See above, re rational decision to cross the goal line before some fuckhead with no skin in the game moves it.

    6. At $900 a month, the apartments are affordable . . .

      Christ. In *San Diego* you can get a decent-sized 1 bedroom for $900. Where I live now, a three bedroom apartment can be gotten for $900. Though a ‘techie’ or whatever these people think they are wouldn’t want to live out here in what they would consider the ass-end of nowhere.

      1. They are Starbuck’s baristas and cashiers who want to live in an edgy, historically gay neighborhood with sexually diverse people, you god damn curmudgeon!

      2. n *San Diego* you can get a decent-sized 1 bedroom for $900.

        In a terrible neighborhood maybe….

    7. It’s Seattle. Who cares! Just stay away.

      But if you must live there, fight fire with fire. Get up a class action suit. Try a ballot issue. Whatever.

    8. I just left this comment on the article (it is currently awaiting moderation):

      The all comes back to the failure of the capitalist system.
      Businesses want to exploit the working class of Seattle? Force them to build affordable housing (min. 500 sq. ft.) for all their workers. Force developers to build this housing as well if they ever want to be considered for government contracts.
      But that’s just a temporary fix. Housing with sufficient space for human flourishing is an *absolute right* and is only denied as such by greedy capitalists. Seattle headed in the right direction when they elected an open socialist to the city council a few years back ? we the workers who actually make this place run should continue pushing until the entire council sees the wisdom of performing the municipal version of nationalization of all key industries. Only when gov’t owns and builds all the housing and we have stripped the evil profit motive from the equation will we begin to see these problems go away.

      1. Thank you for posting this Komrade. Do you have any literature I could read?

    9. Forced “affordable” housing is so incredibly aggravating. I fail to see how putting affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods actually benefits those in the affordable housing. None of the businesses in the area will cater to their lower price point so the affordable housing residents will have to spend time/money to get to areas which they can actually afford.

  3. Reason could save a lot of ink/bandwidth by just saying, “Chicago’s awful,” and calling it a day.

  4. and the city itself?dons sunglasses?seem stuck in reverse.

    FTFY, come on Linnekin get with the program

  5. Baylen misses the upside completely: Here in Chicago, we don’t have to worry about a taco truck on every corner.

    1. In Balmer, we’re starting to get the Korean food trucks. It’s good food and it also solves the feral cat and dog problem at the same time. WIN/WIN.

      1. Can I assume that, just as with the convenience marts, the local yoots have learned not to fuck with the Koreans?

        1. The Koreans seem to have a way of dealing with bureaucracy. I think it’s because if they get shut down, their uncle or nephew or sister or great aunt or cousin’s cousin just opens back up in that persons name. And they never run of cousins. Or something like that. That’s a wild guess btw.

          1. There’s a Korean greasy spoon, on Preston off of N. Charles, that makes one of the best horrible sandwiches ever.

            Ketchup ( I get mayo)
            and chz (yes chz)
            On a kaiser roll.

            So good, so awful.

  6. These sorts of hit pieces remind me of when the French media go after private daycare operators. But I’m not gonna get into that. Suffice to say, they *claim* ‘public services are better’ which is completely utter, unsubstantiated rubbish.

    And few of these rules are in place to protect jack shit except the monopolies and to preserve public jobs connected to it.

    All a false sense of public safety.

    The thing I like about food trucks is the notion of entitled tipping. I’ve grown to somewhat resent tipping because why should I for someone who is doing a job they’re already being paid for? Because they’re not ‘paid enough? So change jobs or pressure your employer to pay you more? In essence, they want me to subsidize restaurants.

    We’ve cut back going to restaurants because it’s gotten ridiculous here. On top of a 15% tax they expect a 20% tip.

    Get outta here.

    1. Are restaurant workers making $15 an hour yet?

      1. I’m stunned that isn’t getting traction up here.

        1. Give them time. Imagine what a meal out will cost with 15% tax, 20% tip, on top of paying for $15 an hour menial labor. Of course, everyone will still willing pay it except for rat fucking baggers who don’t want to pay their fair share.

    2. Look at Mr. Pink over here

      1. Heh. Forgot about him!

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  8. So you’re telling me the city won’t be getting taco trucks on every corner anytime soon?

    1. We don’t need 18 different kinds of taco trucks when children are starving in America.

  9. Let’s raise a big bag of money and offer it as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mr Emanuel. There is probably something out there.

  10. “Taco Trucks on every corner sounds delicious! But you know, we have to regulate them for the sake of fairness.”

    As if dem sardine cans like Philly or Chicago would tolerate taco trucks on every corner taking business away from their brick and mortar cheese steak sandwich and pizza businesses.

    1. Philly can’t handle food trucks on most streets which date from the horse and buggy era. Chicago has similar problems.

  11. Great! They too couldn’t connect the dots and see that government itself is the problem.

  12. Isn’t Chicago where the Kenyan hails from? How about spray painting “Halal” all over the food trucks, then claiming to be an oppressed religious minority wrongly cheated of First Amendment rights and associated with truckloads of explosives.

    1. People like Obama take really long lunches, and then squeeze in a round of golf before they head back to the office.

  13. Finding grub during lunch break in some parts of downtown Chicago must be a real bitch. Vending machine pimento cheese sandwiches are disgusting.

  14. Te media slamming food trucks?

    From the Chicago Sun-Tulpa?

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  16. Anyway, the city’s mobile-food vending businesses should be regulated. best essay writing service

  17. Meh. Overwrought article with little detail of the issues at hand.

    So food trucks are limited in location and time for parking? Is that necessarily unfair or is it on par with what limitations delivery trucks and personal cars have in the city? Are the food trucks demanding special allowances, or are they held to unfair restrictions? Without explaining that, the article is pointless whining.

    And comparisons to other cities is just silly. Food truck prevalence is directly proportional to brick-n-mortar cost of business, the relative worker-bee incomes, and probably most importantly, local weather. Doubtful Chicagoans are browsing street food on anywhere near the number of days that DCians are.

  18. Number of murders in Chicago during the month of August: 90
    Clearly food trucks are the most serious issue facing residents of Chicago.

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  20. Hmm, 42k people per food truck? So what this article is telling me is that I should buy a food truck and move to Chicago?! Sounds like success is assured. The businesses I’ve owned have all been over-regulated. Nowadays you just need to start with a good idea followed immediately by an even better compliance lawyer.

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