Chicago’s Food Truck War

If you’re checking your Twitter feed these days to find out where all the best Chicago food trucks are dropping anchor for lunch, you’re better off checking in with the City Council. If you haven’t heard, food trucks are illegal in Chicago. More precisely, for a food truck to be in operation in Chicago, everything must be prepackaged in a licensed kitchen before hitting the streets. So, while cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Austin have long embraced the food truck phenomenon, current laws prevent Chicago’s best from cooking, cutting, and prepping food on board a truck. But the fists (and boning knives and rolling pins and butane torches) have been raised. The Chicago Food Truck Revolution is imminent.

A few weeks ago, a standing-room only crowd of eager restaurateurs packed into an auditorium at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, hoping for a clue about to how to mobilize their movement. On the stage sat some of the hottest movable chefs from around the country. Ludo Lefebrvre of pop-up restaurant fame in Los Angeles stirred the audience with descriptions of his new fried chicken truck. Mary Sue Milliken, also from L.A., spoke enthusiastically about how the Border Grill Truck has driven up her restaurants’ popularity and sales. San Francisco’s Aaron Noveshen, co-founder and director of culinary development for The Culinary Edge/Mobi Munch/Pacific Catch, regaled guests with tales of a fleet of mobile food trucks zig-zagging around the city’s perilous streets.

Also on the panel sat Tiffany Kurtz, founder of Flirty Cupcakes, who for all intents and purposes runs what could be called Chicago’s first gourmet food truck. The audience listened as she explained how she got around Chicago’s tough laws governing mobile food. “It was difficult,” she explained later, “primarily just because there is nothing created or developed that tells you exactly what the requirements are for establishing a mobile cupcake truck. All the rules and restrictions are in various documents, are vague, and not easy to find.”

But just because the laws are tough doesn’t mean Chicagoans are backing down. Word on the street is that chefs from Alinea, Big Star, Urban Belly, Frontera Grill, Perennial, Graham Elliot, and Naha are raring to rev their engines. And gauging from the sheer amount of National Restaurant Association attendees climbing aboard the MobiMunch demo truck last month, there’s probably a handful more eager to get themselves a set of wheels.

Ray Villeman, founder of MobiMunch mobile trucks, has firm opinions about what it’s going to take for the city to get up and rolling. “Chicago, like other major cities that have embraced the gourmet food truck movement, will need to build a large consumer base of support, actively campaign to local politicians for change, and assist in crafting new ‘rules’ to coexist with the brick and mortar restaurants. Chicago should look at the example of other major cities that have overcome similar barriers and leverage lessons learned,” he says.

Aiming to do just that is Chef Matt Maroni, one of the leaders of the food truck revolution in Chicago. This week he opened a 13-seat sandwich shop in Edgewater called Gaztro-Wagon, named after the truck he hopes to get rolling once his proposal passes through city council. He has been working hard to build up local support through an organization he founded called Chicago Food Trucks.

“I never saw myself doing this, but when I started looking at a unique concept with little start up capital, I saw that food trucks and carts are what lacked in the city of Chicago,” says Maroni on how he got started not only with Gaztro-Wagon, but also with Chicago Food Trucks, an organization dedicated to getting this movement off the ground. “When I started looking into the legislations and codes is when I realized that I had a real opportunity to make a difference and bring this to light. So I did the research and worked about 12 hours a day for over a month gathering info and authoring the proposed legislation. I was unemployed at the time and it helped me get out of a rut and keep my mind busy. I took it on knowing that it may pick up steam or it may fizzle, but I know that as of now it is full of steam and Chicago is headed in the right direction.”

City Council meets this week to discuss Maroni’s proposed ordinance. If it doesn’t pass, there’ll be no roving short rib tacos like you can get from LA’s wildly popular Kogi Korean BBQ truck. There will be no Nutella and banana crepes like the ones the Le Gamin truck in New York spins out. Certainly, there will be no chicken and waffles like those from Lucky J’s Trailer in Austin, TX. If it doesn’t pass, it will be an embarrassment to the city of Chicago. But if it does pass, then LA, NYC, and all the other food truck cities better get ready for some fierce competition. Let the vendrification begin.

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