Less than a day after Chicago lifted its ban on food carts on Sept. 24, city aldermen with a history of limiting the city's food options made moves to restrict vendors' ability to operate in lucrative locations.
Two aldermen have launched proposals to limit where food carts can set up: Alderman Tom Tunney, whose ward covers the Wrigleyville neighborhood and who formerly owned restaurants of his own, and Alderman Brendan Reilly, whose district encompasses River North and many of the city's most well-known brick-and-mortar dining spots, are leading the charge.
Food carts should be a boon to Chicago neighborhoods, with the potential to bring up to 6,400 new jobs and create more than $8 million in new local sales-tax revenue. Unfortunately, the hardworking food-cart vendors who fought so long for the city to recognize their industry now operate at the mercy of all-powerful local aldermen, many of whom use their authority to grant political favors and keep out businesses they don't like.
Chicago's more than 1,500 food-cart vendors are primarily Latino and serve low-income neighborhoods where food options are often scarce. They are a beloved part of their communities - kids pick up elotés for after-school snacks, walkers grab champurrado on cool mornings and anyone looking for a delicious lunch knows vendors' tamales won't disappoint.
Now that Chicago has lifted its ban on food carts, there should be no restrictions on where vendors can operate. City Council's Sept. 24 vote to legalize the industry was a huge victory for the small-time entrepreneur - it would be a mistake to walk it back.
But the move isn't surprising. History has shown Chicagoans where Tunney and Reilly stand when it comes to culinary competition.
Even though the city does allow food trucks to sell, aldermen imposed severe restrictions on how these businesses can operate. Food trucks can't set up shop within 200 feet of a restaurant. To enforce this rule, the city requires food trucks to install GPS tracking devices. Vendors must stay in one location for no more than two hours, and there are just 35 designated "food stands" in which food trucks are allowed to park.
Tunney and Reilly were among the chief proponents of heavy restrictions on food trucks when City Council considered the topic over the last several years. Tunney made no secret that the main reason behind the city's oppressive rules is to protect established businesses.
"One of the major issues is spacing from brick-and-mortar restaurants," Tunney told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011. "We've got work to do. We need to hear from all sides. We need to make sure we protect ... restaurants and foster a trend that, I think, is gonna be here for a while."
Tunney was right about one thing: Despite heavy regulations, food trucks are thriving in Chicago. These mobile vendors have become immensely popular among the thousands of workers looking for variety in their lunch options downtown. Trucks like La Cocinita, The Jibarito Stop and Boocooroux bring new flavors and choices to diners, in a location where brick-and-mortar chains used to dominate. Now that City Council has unleashed food carts, there's no reason to doubt that these vendors will receive a warm reception from diners across the city.
But Tunney is dead wrong when he says the city must "protect" restaurants. It should be left to hungry Chicagoans - not all-powerful Chicago aldermen - to determine where vendors take their talents.