It’s been almost twenty years since I took my oldest daughter, a high school junior at the time, on a driving tour of colleges she was interested in.
One of our stops was Penn—the University of Pennsylvania—in Philadelphia. I don’t remember much about the campus, but I distinctly recall the streets outside the entrance gate lined with food trucks preparing aromatic hot meals from around the world, a culinary cornucopia I’d never seen in Chicago. In fact, my local experience with mobile meals began and ended with pickup trucks dispensing unimaginative, pre-packaged fare outside factories where I had summer jobs. Kate and I sampled several tasty, reasonably priced ethnic treats at Penn that day, and I remember wishing similar stuff was available in Chicago. Now, of course, it is—at least on streets around the Better Government Association’s office on West Jackson— thanks to an enabling ordinance passed by City Council in 2012 after a protracted battle between food truck proponents and Chicago’s wary restaurant lobby. Observers say the restaurateurs won, overwhelmingly, but more on that later. Personally, I’m glad our BGA foodies can enjoy a variety of meals on wheels, including: Gourmet sandwiches at Jack’s Fork in the Road, Puerto Rican chow at The Jibarito Stop, Indian at Naansense, Mexican at Aztec Dave’s, pizza at Da Pizza Dude, Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs, Chicago Cupcake, Jamaican at Jerk, soul food at Southern Pitch, and kebabs at DönerMen. That variety and availability bolsters Mayor Emanuel’s claim, on a Food Network show in 2013, that “Chicago is a food truck kind of town.” But recent reports, including a blog in the Huffington Post, paint a different picture. “The truth,” writes local journalist Hilary Gowins, “Chicago isn’t a food truck town—it’s a special interest city where political connections reign supreme and organic innovation is seen as a nuisance that would upset the established order.” Her critique is reinforced by an “Eater Chicago” survey that found only 80 food trucks operating in the city, compared with 267 in Los Angeles, 172 in Washington, D.C. and 156 in Austin, Texas. On a per capita basis, Chicago has only three food trucks per 100,000 residents, compared with 37 in Miami, Florida; 33 in Orlando, Florida; and 26 in Washington, D.C. Those numbers indicate our slice of Downtown is a food truck oasis in a city that’s still mostly desert. Blogger Gowins and other food truck aficionados blame an excessively restrictive city ordinance—it’s tough, for sure— and heavy-handed enforcement that’s put many operators out of business. Their enterprise got an unexpected boost this summer when Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk urged the mayor to ease licensing requirements and parking restrictions. Kirk also suggested police write fewer tickets for alleged violations, calling it an “easy win” for Emanuel and “less work for police,” so they can concentrate on fighting crime. That’s worth considering, but food truck freedom is hardly a pressing issue for city officials confronted with massive budget and pension shortfalls, and other urban ills. Even 45th ward Ald. John Arena, who cast the only “no” vote against the 2012 ordinance, and still laments its pro-restaurant bias, says this isn’t the right time to revisit the issue. His recommendation, which makes sense, is to chew on it for a while and save the next food fight for another day.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.