For the past four years, Chicago has forced food trucks to live under ridiculous rules. But depending on the outcome of a case now before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos, the Chicago Way may have to change.
The anticipated Dec. 5 court ruling - and the hope it could change things for the better - couldn't come at a better moment for food trucks. In recent weeks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been coming after these small-business owners. But they've faced the city's wrath for years, even after City Council passed rules "legitimizing" the industry in 2012.
Vendors who want to operate in the city:
• Can't sell within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar business that sells food (including anything from McDonalds to CVS)
• Have to be on the move every two hours (it takes about this long just to set up and tear down for the day)
• Plug in a GPS tracker to let the government know where they are (creepy)
Food trucks can park legally by just 3 percent of curbs in the Loop, the city's busiest weekday lunch district, according to analysis from the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based litigation group that represents food truck owners in the lawsuit against the city.
Food trucks have become an easy target for politicians and insiders because they threaten the status quo. For many years, the restaurant industry has propped up friendly politicians with campaign cash and support. In return, restaurants get preferential treatment.
Restaurants, and groups and individuals affiliated with them, gave total campaign donations worth $180,926 to Chicago aldermen in 2015, according to Illinois State Board of Elections data compiled by the Chicago watchdogs at Project Six. This figure doesn't include some restaurant owners or lobbyists, who likely donate under other names or entities.
Chicago's failure to fully embrace food trucks is a shame, because the burgeoning industry is a bright spot of entrepreneurship in the city. After years of the same old options, people working downtown can pop outside to get an empanada, fried chicken or an organic salad. The options are expanding all the time as more food entrepreneurs move in to meet growing demand.
"The people obviously want food trucks and line up for us. They want more," said Jacob Rush, co-founder of Bruges Brothers food truck. "But to think that every business is looking over their shoulder every day for another beat cop to put a boot on a truck, waiting for a new regulation, waiting for a new license fee or tax that could hamper our business ... it's baffling."
And while owners scrimp and sweat to make ends meet, they're met at every turn with animosity.
"It's clear based on comments by the aldermen that the laws exist to protect certain businesses," said Rush, who has operated his business in Chicago for two years, and now has three full-time and several part-time staff.
"Some of my employees have kids, and they depend on us," he said. "But the laws here are constricting the businesses so much that it puts 10-12 trucks out of business every year."
It's time Chicago's elected leaders stopped targeting the little guy. Unfortunately, it may take a court ruling to get officials to do the right thing.