Food Trucks and Freedom: Law School Hosts Symposium on Mobile Food Laws in Chicago

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
April 26, 2012

Sometimes, the road to the middle class is paved with calzones and tamales. Or maybe hot dogs and doughnuts. 

For entrepreneurs, especially those who are low-income or immigrants, a food truck or cart can be a vehicle to economic stability and a better life for the next generation. But Chicago’s mobile food law makes that dream a very difficult reality, according to the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School.

The Clinic hosted “My Streets, My Eats,” a mobile food symposium and meet-up on April 14 where vendors, law students, and “foodies” came together to learn, talk, and eat. Law students briefed the vendors on Chicago’s current law, which many of them know all too well as restrictive to business. In fact, the Clinic found that Chicago has more of the major types of restrictions than every other of the 50 largest U.S. cities, except Memphis, Tenn. 

For example, according to Chicago’s mobile food law, a hot dog vendor isn’t permitted to put Chicago-style toppings on a hot dog at the cart, because no food preparation is allowed on the cart or truck. And he can’t legally park his cart virtually anywhere in the Loop, because the law restricts mobile food within 200 feet of any establishment that sells food. And maybe, he can’t have the cart at all, because only uncut fruit and vegetables can be sold from carts, according to some city officials. To sell anything beyond that, you’re supposed to have a mobile food dispenser license, which consultants in City Hall (though not the municipal code) say requires a motorized vehicle. Vendors who disobey the law are often heavily fined. 

“These laws are not connected to health and safety,” said Beth Kregor, Clinic Director. “They’re not constitutional. Chicago should do better.”

The symposium worked to rally the vendors and the public together in the cause of mobile food freedom. And, of course, there was food: schnitzel and cupcakes and duck tacos and soup and chicken sandwiches and yogurt and much, much more.  An association of sidewalk vendors served attendees an array of tamales for breakfast.  And about 15 food trucks parked behind the Law School for a post-symposium meet-up that was welcomed by hungry people across the campus and the city.

Richard Myrick of the website Mobile Cuisine Magazine said the symposium could bring real change.  

“The fact that a larger spotlight can be brought on the industry will bring more attention,” he said. People in attendance may have been inspired to “go to the councilmen, they’ll go to the aldermen, they’ll go to the mayor’s office and push for that change.”

VENDORS SEEK SOLUTION, OPPORTUNITY

Throughout the day, vendors had a chance to gather information and share stories and strategies.

Students Cory Miggins, ’12, and John Volk, ’13, started the event with a presentation directed at vendors in which they explained Chicago’s mobile food law. Read about the session, “How Chicago’s Laws Apply to You,” and a sampling of the rules, on The Advocate, the Clinic blog.  

Taking in all this information was Michael Gholston, 45, and his son, Chase, 12. Gholston, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the first Gulf War, took a buyout from Ford Motor Co. five years ago and went to culinary school. Gholston has always been a passionate chef, he said, dating back to when he baked his mother a cake at just eight years old. He plans to start his mobile food business with a hot dog cart, using a small-business loan from the city, but would like to one day serve his speciality: soul food. Chase said he’ll be right there with his dad when he’s not at school.

“I’m here because I want to hear all the city laws and see all the help that I have,” the elder Gholston said, expressing some disbelief about the number of rules in place.

In the Latino community, street vending is attractive work for mothers who need to make their own hours so they can care for their children without having to pay for expensive daycare, said Vicki Lugo, Vice President of Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (AVA) in Chicago.  

Some panelists offered a view of street vending in other major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles and New York. In New York, 95 percent of street vendors are immigrants, and each supports an average of 4 or 5 people, domestically and in their homelands, said Sean Basinski, Founder and Director of the Street Vendor Project. In Los Angeles, where the mobile food rules are relatively liberal, officials often employ “flexible” enforcement that encourages warnings to violators instead of tickets, said Gregg Kettles, Deputy Counsel for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Kregor said the Clinic’s goal is to support the vendors and other small business people, no matter how humble or ambitious their goals.

“We believe in the little guy,” she told the audience gathered in the Law School auditorium. “Whether the little guy is just trying to feed his family, or trying to start the next big thing.”

STREET FOOD IN URBAN LIFE

The panelists talked about the long history of mobile food, and the validity of concerns that mobile food decreases the business of brick-and-mortar restaurants. The Institute for Justice believes the rules are “pushed for by restaurants who don’t want competition from the trucks,” Kregor said.

John Gaber, Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, gave a brief history of street vending, which he said has been happening on American soil since before the United States became a nation. Its prevalence increased during the Industrial Revolution, and in modern times, immigrants turned to street vending to make a living. Its low start-up costs make it an attractive option for entrepreneurs without much capital.

In recent years, mobile food became hip, and even “high-end,” Gaber said, among young city crowds. That was evidenced by the book, Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, written by another panelist, food writer Heather Shouse. Shouse pointed out that Americans have typically been less comfortable than people living in Europe or Asia with eating mobile food, but that is slowly changing.

Alderman Willie Cochran, from Chicago’s 20th Ward, said he supports an expansion of rights for vendors, but he has heard from restaurant owners concerned that food trucks parked nearby will hurt their business. Several panelists dismissed that notion.

“Historically, I don’t think a single restaurant went out of business because of a vendor,” Gaber said, because the trucks don’t provide direct competition to brick-and-mortar establishments. He explained this is because the quantities are smaller, and the atmosphere is completely different. If anything, Gaber added, food trucks make people slow down in business areas, potentially bringing new customers to restaurants.

Justin Large, Chef de Cuisine of Big Star tacqueria and bar in Wicker Park, agreed. Big Star has a restaurant and a food truck.

“It’s not the same customer,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of really effective conversation between the two sides.”

The panelists also pointed out that food trucks bring a wider variety of foods, including nutritious foods, to urban neighborhoods with few dining or grocery options.

SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?

It’s been almost two years since a proposal was introduced to city council that would create a new license category for food trucks that could prepare food on board. The proposal was re-introduced last spring after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. It was referred to two committees, but those committee’s chairs have never scheduled a hearing for it, Kregor said.

People on city council and in the mayor’s office say they’re supportive, but “they seem to get bogged down by concerns from restaurants who don’t want competition,” she added.

“These rules not only limit what entrepreneurs can do, but they also limit customers’ access to affordable food.”

Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is headquartered in Virginia, was asked why the organization has not sued the city of Chicago.

“Stay tuned,” he said. “Chicago is definitely a potential litigation target for us.”

Lawsuits or not, the symposium will be successful if it inspires people to demand change from their elected officials, said Lugo, of AVA.

“It’s helping us push, get more attention to this matter,” she said. “This symposium puts everything out there. It makes people aware these things are happening.”

Faculty: 
Elizabeth Kregor