At 1:30 p.m. this past Saturday in the University of Chicago Law School parking lot, you could buy everything from duck sausage to meatball subs to frozen yogurt for less than 10 dollars each out of a truck. They had gathered outside the law school as part of the “My Streets, My Eats” symposium on mobile food vending hosted by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, an organization that has long advocated for deregulation in the food industry that would allow for more openings in the market for up-and-comers. The Bridgeport Pasty mobile, which was dishing out thick, crusty meat pies, has been operated by a couple team out of Bridgeport since since September 2011. Pleasant House Bakery opened in the same neighborhood in May 2011. Jay Sebastian, who sold me a belly warming chicken potpie, says it was a coincidence, and they’ve never had any tension.
It was fear of just that kind of competition, however, that has driven much of the opposition to food trucking in this city, and consequently, was the focus of much of the discussion at Saturday’s symposium. Bert Gall, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice who participated in the symposium, co-authored a study called, “Street of Dreams: How Cities can Create Economic Opportunity by Knocking Down Protectionist Barriers to Street Vending.” Gall argues that supposed health and safety concerns regarding food trucks—the most frequently mentioned are the freshness of the food and street congestion—are really government’s not so subtle attempts at concealing economic protectionism of brick-and-mortar restaurants. It’s worth mentioning that the Institute for Justice is funded by Koch Family Foundations, which also funds the libertarian Cato Institute. Many remarked that the free-wheeling food truck crowd and buttoned-up libertarian lawyers make strange bedfellows, and a few symposium attendees joked that the whole event was a ruse to convert hip, young Chicagoans into proponents of deregulation, and that we would all soon be receiving emails about the evils of Obamacare.
While the Institute’s work in favor of mobile vending has been productive so far, it’s clear that it’s overwhelmingly the will of the wealthy restaurant owners and lobbies that have kept these restrictive laws on the books. Even as other cities have reduced regulations on food trucks, Chicago alone retains a law that prohibits the preparation of food on board a moving vehicle. Supposedly, this law is in place out of consideration for citizen health and safety, but many symposium attendees made the point that serving reheated food that has been sitting on a truck for an hour doesn’t seem particularly healthful. “Sometimes,” Gall said regarding moving Chicago towards a more vibrant mobile vending scene, “you just have to sue the bastards.”
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