Industry News | March 16, 2011

The Battle for Chicago ... Food Trucks

Chicago remains the last major U.S. city to get on board with the food-truck trend, due largely to a city ordinance that states operators can serve but not prepare food on the streets. That may soon change, however, as culinary-school grads hungry for jobs fight brick-and-mortar restaurateurs to change the ordinance.

It’s a battle that typically ends in food-truck operators’ favor, says Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. 

Geller met Chicago food-truck entrepreneur Matt Maroni at the National Restaurant Association Show in 2010 during a panel on regulatory issues. Maroni had launched his Gaztro-Wagon under Chicago’s existing food-truck rules, and solicited Geller’s help in proposing a new ordinance that would ultimately open the door for a food-truck revolution in one of the country’s culinary hotbeds.

Maroni approached Chicago Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack with a draft ordinance that would expand the existing laws, allowing food-truck operators to prepare food in the truck. The draft is working its way through the committee process, Waguespack says, and public hearings will commence this spring.

“[Maroni is] a constituent of mine, and he was the impetus to push it forward,” Waguespack says. “He talked about what it would do for the culinary profession in Chicago.” 

Waguespack says a group of professional chefs in his ward “found that food trucks were everywhere in major cities but Chicago. This would be great as long as we can deal with streets and sanitation issues. Part of it is that gastronomy is flourishing. There’s a lot of creativity in the market.”

The Kendall College School of Culinary Arts is also in Waguespack’s ward. He says the school’s new grads cannot afford to open restaurants, “but two or three could pitch money together and start a food truck.”

“There’s a certain sexiness to the issue because of social media,” says Glenn Keefer, owner of Keefer’s Restaurant in Chicago, noting that he’s opposed to the ordinance change. “It’s kind of cool. You’re in on it. But it’s probably not going to be as safe.” 

Keefer thinks the proposed change is unfair to those who have invested heavily in brick and mortar. 

“We have a social contract—we’re paying a lot in property taxes,” Keefer says. “These guys have no real estate taxes. There’s no social contract for them reaping the benefits of the density of this location. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of little league teams sponsored by the Gaztro-Wagon.”

But Geller, who is confident the new ordinance will pass, says the newer mobile trucks “are nicer than some of the kitchens I’ve seen in restaurants. In Chicago, it’s a pretty simple change.”

 

By Jan Fletcher

News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by QSR, Food News Media, or Journalistic, Inc.

Comments

Okay, let's just take it easy here.First, Keefer, why don't you name all the "little league teams" your restaurant, situated in the city center, sponsors in the neighborhoods? I don't disagree that you have more skin in the game at the neighborhood level, in this case River North. But it is disingenuous to suggest that others are not putting money up for the neighborhood if you are not.So, let's see that list. I want to know of all the little league teams Keefer's is supporting. Please, surprise me.And the comment that Geller makes about food trucks being cleaner than some restaurants is a slam at Chicago restaurants. Chicago has a good food ordinance. What you say may be true of some places, it is not true of restaurants in this city. You should take that back.It is equally obvious that it unfair to call the current regime "roach wagons." But that is what you did to the brick and mortar merchants with that statement.Here is the issue from talking to restaurant owners in the Ravenswood neighborhood: the food truck has no skin in the game. They can pick a neighborhood to appear in. They show up. They serve food. They depart.The area restaurants which have been a mainstay in developing the area lose part of their investment in developing an area to a competitor that has cherry picked their potential customers.That investment is real and it is substantial. From the viewpoint of the traditional establishment we can call it a cost.A further problem is that because the area doesn't have the ongoing resources to deal with the sudden waste created by the truck arrival, the waste is everywhere. Simply, although there are waste stations associated with the food truck and near the food truck, they are often inadequate at addressing the waste issue, which remains and spreads through a neighborhood after the departure of the truck.Two things result from that. First the cost of cleaning up after the food truck has departed is left with the remaining merchants. (i.e., The cost of clean-up is borne in part by the food truck's competitors).And second, the pedestrian who does not participate in the food truck "experience" is left to experience the trash. That experience, unlike the food experience, is negative.These are costs that should be borne by the food truck operators, not the brick and mortar merchants.Patrick Boylan, publisherWelles Park Bulldog Chicago: Ravenswood

The B&M's do have a point. They have invested heavily and using the descriptive from the article, they have skin in the game. It is unfair for mobiles to just come and go and leave them with the consequences of trash etc.On the other hand the Mobiles have also a right to participate and add to the culinary experience of Chicago.Solution; Create a Mobile park where the citizenry can go to for mobile meals. This would not be hindering the B&M's and they would not have to complain about unfairness.If the Mobiles offer as is suggested a better value and have a sustainable competitive advantage the customers will gravitate to where the value is offered.A mobile park for food trucks will give each their own zone to work and grow.GY

Dear Patrick BoylanWelles Park Bull Dog:To be fair there you are 100% correct: there are no LittleLeague Teams sponsored by Keefer's Restaurant. Unfortunately the entirety of my comment: "How many gift certificates and donations for charity, little league teams and meals for the homeless will the MFTs sponsor?" was not included in the article you referenced. We are big believers in not making public what we do for charity but you might be surprised how many homeless meals we have provided monthly and on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years over the last seven plus years. And I will not, but why don't you contact Msgr. Michael M. Boland at Catholic Charities, 721 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60654, Phone: (312) 655-717 and ask him or any of the other charities we support, including 50 some-odd other charities . I stand by my comment and would be shocked if a one or two man operation working out of a converted, used US Postal truck with no bathrooms, will make a similar 7 year plus commitment to any charity or the neighborhoods they raid without contributing dollar one to property taxes that fund our fire department, police department, schools and streets and sanitation. It was convenient for you to overlook what we do contribute. Looks like Taco Bell is ramping up with an extra luxurious version of a food truck -- won't that be a blessing for our obese, couch potato, empty calorie consuming nation!!Glenn KeeferKeefer's Restaurant312.467-9525

Dear Patrick BoylanWelles Park Bull Dog:To be fair there you are 100% correct: there are no LittleLeague Teams sponsored by Keefer's Restaurant. Unfortunately the entirety of my comment: "How many gift certificates and donations for charity, little league teams and meals for the homeless will the MFTs sponsor?" was not included in the article you referenced. We are big believers in not making public what we do for charity but you might be surprised how many homeless meals we have provided monthly and on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years over the last seven plus years. And I will not, but why don't you contact Msgr. Michael M. Boland at Catholic Charities, 721 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60654, Phone: (312) 655-717 and ask him or any of the other charities we support, including 50 some-odd other charities . I stand by my comment and would be shocked if a one or two man operation working out of a converted, used US Postal truck with no bathrooms, will make a similar 7 year plus commitment to any charity or the neighborhoods they raid without contributing dollar one to property taxes that fund our fire department, police department, schools and streets and sanitaion. It was convenient for you to overlook what we do contribute. Looks like Taco Bell is ramping up with an extra luxurious version of a food truck -- won't that be a blessing for our obese, couch potato, empty calorie consuming nation!!Glenn KeeferKeefer's Restaurant312.467-9525

I have known Glenn Keefer for almost six years and I can say from first hand experience that he has few, if any, peers when it comes to giving back to the community.Glenn doesn't even need to be asked for him to step up and feed well over 100 individuals on a weekly basis, not to mention on special holiday occasions, when the homeless and hungry have no family or friends to enjoy a hot, nourishing meal with. That's probably one of the reasons that Glenn was recently named Man of the Year by the Illinois Restaurant Association. To question Glenn's commitment to the community-at-large and especially to those who would go to bed hungry without his generosity and forethought, is without merit, and frankly doesn't credit just what he brings to the table...literally. I truly hope I surprised you, Patrick!!I can't speak to the legitimacy of these trucks coming into the city, but I do have one question for Alderman Waguespack: If I buy my sandwich on Tuesday at Dearborn and Kinzie from a "traveling chef" and on Wednesday, when he is selling his gastric delights at Lawrence and Broadway, my ptomeine poisoning has kicked into high gear, do I send my subsequent medical bills to your brick and mortar residence or directly to our esteemed brick and mortar City Hall?

While I agree and see the point that B &M's have invested in a community, I doubt the effects of FTs are detrimental on the communities they frequent. I understand their may be increased trash due to the traffic food trucks bring, but it is no more than what the local Subway or McDonalds is currently giving to the city streets. This could also be countered with a simple tax on food trucks that would go directly to streets and san with the goal of aiding in this clean up. I also think the benefit the food trucks offer bring greatly outweighs any issues they may cause. They offer patrons an out-of-norm lunch experience. I work downtown and my lunch choices are often unhealthy, boring and stale. Food Trucks offer me an occasional opportunity to break routine and try and inexpensive culinary delight. Some are even changing the landscapes of their home-base, Gaztro-Wagon is a great example. I know that they are fighting to do away with making FTs have a B & M location, but the trucks operating currently DO have a B & M. Gaztro-Wagon is up in a stretchy part of Edgewater/Rogers Park, where I happen to live. They are changing the neighborhood and making it a culinary destination for Chicagoans to go to. People eat at their FT during the day and wonder, Where can I get these amazing naan-wiches in the evenings or on weekends? They have to hike it up to Edgewater, a neighborhood the most likely would never go to otherwise, and this is creating change and making my neighborhood a place to go in Chicago. Gaztro-Wagon, I give you my sincerest thanks for what you are doing!

Having both B&M and a FT I see the rewards of both, the hard work that goes into the B&M and the extra work on a FT, running a FT is not as simple as it looks, buy a UPS truck and throw a stove in it is not how it goes, these machines are state of the art and in some cases cost more than a B&M. The advantage to these travelling test kitchens is that it brings a great social network, when these trucks team up together and hit points of business that need a boost in foot traffic these trucks are perfect, it is a fun night out for all ages and when the trucks are done right the surrounding businesses get the benefit of 100's and some cases 1000's of added foot traffic. It is a great way for a B&M to market their product in places where they can't reach with a B&M, people should not look at this a negative but as a change to the way we look at business, adapt, we are a society that is constantly changing and bring new ideas to light, we love progress, embrace it and use it to your advantage, as for added trash these are excuses, permits/tax/donations etc are ways to improve this area. These FT's can hit schools for a change of pace for the kids and offer healthy choices, charity events giving percentages of the sales to the organization, street fares, concerts, etc, it is a long list to make evenings out that much better.

I'm currently trying to open a food truck business as well as a supporting B&M, let me tell you from a personal stand point that a food truck is no easy or inexpensive or short cut to opening a restaurant in Chicago. I have to jump through a lot more hoops for the food truck than I do for the B&M. $50-$70K the "UPS" truck will end up costing and it will be up to the standards of ANY commercial kitchen in Chicago, so I take offense to the name calling of these trucks, they are far from "roach coachess" and if the B&M's are really concerned for local economy and trash, then this is an easy fix. Each ward can offer operating licences for food trucks and if that food truck dosn't have a license to sell in that area then they can't. There are solutions to every problem and we can work together in harmony, competition is good, that is why there are areas that have lots of restaurants all together and there are areas with none. Food trucks could service both of these areas and I don't think it would affect the B&M's business at all, if you have a good concept, good food, good customer service and at a reasonable price then your going to do your business as usual. If you don't have these things and the restaurant fails, it isn't the fault of the trucks and vice versa.

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