Every weekday, close to a dozen food trucks line up at Wacker Drive and Adams Street in downtown Chicago to serve lunch. But Oct. 5, city officials ticketed trucks and told them to leave. The food-truck bust serves as a chilling reminder to Chicago's culinary entrepreneurs: No matter how popular or productive your business, the city can shut it down on a whim.
Bruges Brothers, a popular local vendor that sells Belgian-style frites, was one of the trucks the city ticketed. The citation, which came with a $25 fine, said the food truck had violated a city parking ordinance that prohibits trucks, buses or other commercial vehicles from parking on any business street in the city.
But that doesn't add up. Chicago's Municipal Code allows mobile-food vehicles to vend at a location for the lesser of two hours or the maximum time allowed for parking at that spot. If city officials ignore the sections of the code that allow food trucks to operate and ban these vendors from business streets, some of the city's most popular meal options are likely to vanish.
Charles Belt, who does social media outreach and works daily on the Bruges Brothers food truck, said the ticket his truck received yesterday set an unsettling precedent.
"What the ticket was saying was that none of the food trucks were allowed to operate anywhere in the Loop, if you take into account that ticket on top of the 200-foot rule and the two-hour rule," Belt said.
That's what bothered us. The people who came through gave everyone a ticket, told us to leave and said if we didn't leave they'd put boots on the trucks. We chose to stay because we really don't have a choice. We're a small business: Every day matters, and every dollar matters. To give up real estate is not an option for us.
It's possible the ticketing flurry on Oct. 5 was just a fluke.
But attorney Robert Frommer worries that incidents like this could be a sign of something more. Frommer, an attorney for the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, is representing the Cupcakes for Courage food truck in a lawsuit challenging Chicago's food-truck rules.
"If the city is going to maintain that [its code] prevents food trucks from parking on any business street, notwithstanding what other parts of the city code say, then they are essentially banning all food-truck vending on public property in Chicago," he said.
"I cannot believe that is what they actually intend; if it is, though, then Rahm is basically saying he intends to destroy the entire food-truck industry."
No matter what motivated the city to issue tickets to food trucks at this intersection, one thing is clear: Chicago's food-truck rules make it difficult for these entrepreneurs to operate. The city continues to issue licenses to new vendors, but it is not increasing the amount of space available to food trucks that want to meet high customer demand.
Chicago already restricts food trucks from operating within 200 feet of a restaurant and mandates that trucks have GPS trackers to monitor their movements - requirements Frommer's lawsuit seeks to overturn. Limiting where food trucks can operate based on their proximity to brick-and-mortar eateries does nothing to protect the public - this rule exists purely to shield restaurants from competition.
"We operate under rules that other cities don't have to deal with," Belt said. "In Portland and LA, where there are thriving food-truck communities, they don't have to deal with stuff like this. Rahm wants Chicago to be a first-class city. A strong food-truck scene is paramount to that."
"It's something the city -- the people -- want. We have the people on our side."
The intersection at Adams and Wacker was barren of food trucks on Oct. 6, the day after the city's bust. Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly, whose ward encompasses the Wacker and Adams location, did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. Reilly was among the chief proponents of heavy restrictions on food trucks when City Council considered the topic over the last several years.
"We're just trying to make a living out here," said John Nguyen, owner of Chicago Lunchbox. "The city makes me feel like I'm doing something illegal."