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Food trucks breaking the rules — a Sun-Times/ABC7 special report

The 100 block of South Wacker Drive, seen here at lunchtime, has become a key hub of the food-truck industry, even though there’s no designated mobile food vendor stand there. Reporters saw trucks using metered spaces and parking in tow zones all along the west side of Wacker for several hours every weekday. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Nearly four years after Chicago aldermen crafted a new law regulating food trucks, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team has found the rules are frequently broken with violators seldom facing any consequences because enforcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is so lax.

Under the ordinance Emanuel proposed and the Chicago City Council approved in 2012, the city designated 37 “mobile food vehicle stands” across the city. The stands are supposed to be about 40 feet long — enough space for about two trucks. No other trucks are allowed to park in the same block outside of a stand. And the food trucks aren’t allowed to operate at the same location for more than two hours at a time.

But food-truck operators routinely violate those rules, the Sun-Times and ABC7 found. And the Emanuel administration rarely punishes them.

For instance, in the 100 block of South Clark Street, a short walk from City Hall, reporters found the law is ignored virtually every weekday, with as many as a 13 food trucks lined up between Adams Street and Monroe Street.

The signs marking the food-truck stand there are 105 feet apart. In addition to the four trucks operating in the stand on Clark, the Sun-Times/ABC7 investigation found food trucks frequently are doing business in tow zones and closer to the intersections than allowed. And reporters saw food trucks there operating from the same spots from 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. or later.

Reporters found the city’s rules for food trucks are routinely ignored on Clark Street between Monroe Street and Adams Street, seen here at lunchtime. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Reporters found the city’s rules for food trucks are routinely ignored on Clark Street between Monroe Street and Adams Street, seen here at lunchtime. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Food-truck operators complain the city’s rules are too restrictive, particularly that two hours isn’t long enough to be worth their cost to operate.

One day last month, the Sun-Times and ABC7 found The Corner Farmacy food truck opened before 9 a.m. and remained open into the afternoon in a tow zone on Clark Street in front of the entrance to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The owner of that truck, Emily Darland, 31, said she ignored a request to move from the manager of the restaurant, said she was “well aware we are in a tow zone” and acknowledged she stays far beyond the time limit.

“Nobody moves after two hours,” Darland said. “No one does.

“The people making the rules have no idea what it’s like to be out here in business.”

Asked why she didn’t go to another food-truck stand after finding competitors had filled the zone on Clark before she arrived, Darland said, “You know where you can actually go to turn a profit? Only four or five of [the stands] have enough foot traffic.”

She and other food-truck operators also complain that their options are limited by the city’s longstanding ban on them doing business within 200 feet of restaurants.

The Illinois Food Truck Owners Association says Chicago’s rules are too restrictive, far more so than those in other cities, acknowledging, “This has led to some members of our community parking in inappropriate locations and acting in a desperate fashion.”

“The rules are so blatantly crazy it would be impossible for a small food-truck business to succeed if it abided by the ordinance,” said Gabriel Wiesen, the owner of the Beavers Donuts food truck and interim head of the Illinois Food Truck Owners Association.

Wiesen said the “vast majority” of new food trucks in Chicago fail within a couple of years because of the city’s rules.

The chances of getting in trouble for violating the law, though, are slim, according to city records obtained by the Sun-Times and ABC7. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection were given the authority to enforce the ordinance but have done little to ensure the rules are followed, records show.

Transportation Department officials said they have no record of ever having issued a single citation under the ordinance. And the business and consumer agency has levied $1,000 fines — the minimum penalty under the 2012 food-truck law — just five times since the ordinance was passed. All of those cases were three years ago.

“As with any new license type, we work with the food-truck licensees to ensure they are compliant and give them time to acclimate to the license structure, although we take violations of any ordinance seriously,” said Mika Stambaugh, a spokeswoman for the Business Affairs Department.

City officials say they also have collected a total of more than $37,000 in fines stemming from 62 cases the police and the city health department have filed against food-truck operators in the past five years.

The ordinance says food trucks must be equipped with Global Positioning System devices that track their location — information the city can demand. But the city has never asked for such data, records show.

“We haven’t received enough complaints warranting a GPS search,” Stambaugh said.

The 100 block of South Wacker Drive has emerged as a major downtown hub of the food-truck industry, even though there’s no designated mobile food vendor stand there. Reporters witnessed trucks using metered spaces and parking in tow zones all along the west side of the block for several hours every weekday.

A Chicago Cupcake food truck parked in a right-turn lane on Clark Street near Adams Street. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
A Chicago Cupcake food truck parked in a right-turn lane on Clark Street near Adams Street. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Sam Svita, who works for the Chicago Cupcake food truck, had it parked and open for business in a tow zone near Wacker Drive and Adams Street one day last month. A police officer chased away a food truck parked at the end of the block, but Svita said the officer “passed right by me” and said it was OK to remain in the tow zone.

At the other end of the block that same day, CheSa’s Gluten Tootin Free Food Truck was parked in a CTA bus stop a few feet from Wacker Drive and Monroe Street from before 9 a.m. until after the lunchtime rush. A woman at the truck’s window said she recently bought the truck but wouldn’t answer any questions.

Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes the Wacker Drive and Clark Street sites, said his office “receives a lot of complaints” about food trucks and that enforcement is “sporadic.”

There are between 11 and 14 trucks in the 100 block of South Wacker Drive from about 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. “on any given day,” meaning no one else can find a parking spot, the operator of Chicago-area Subway restaurants complained to Reilly in November.

The Subway operator said the trucks ignore the two-hour limit every day and that garbage from the trucks and their patrons leave waste bins overflowing.

“The food trucks show a complete disregard for the food-truck ordinance, a complete disregard for parking regulations, a complete disregard for cleanliness and pest issues and no sense of fairness to other businesses in the area,” wrote an official for Subway Development of Chicagoland, which didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Someone from the property-management company for an office building on Wacker Drive also wrote to Reilly about garbage from food trucks but expressed fear that complaining would bring a backlash from the tech-savvy food truck operators: “If we or the restaurants that pay city real estate taxes call, we are blasted on social media.”

In the 100 block of South Clark Street, the owner of GRK Greek Kitchen asked City Hall to move the food-truck stand further down the block. Reilly introduced a measure in the City Council in 2014 to do that and wrote Emanuel seeking his backing, but the change was never approved.

“During council debate on the matter of food trucks [in 2012], I predicted that the creation of mobile food truck stands would negatively impact nearby brick-and-mortar food licensees,” Reilly told the mayor in a June 2014 letter.

GRK Greek Kitchen’s owner — who wrote the alderman again last year, asking the city “to ensure that the number of food spaces is being respected” — declined to comment this week.

A Department of Transportation spokesman said officials determined that the food-truck stand in the 100 block of South Clark Street was supposed to be about 40 feet long. Officials had no explanation this week when asked why signs designating the stand are 105 feet apart.

They said they are working with Reilly to move the stand on Clark Street but had no specific plans yet. Reilly, though, said he hasn’t heard anything about the matter in months.

Reilly said city officials need to step up enforcement — and that if the food-truck owners obey the rules, there could be a financial benefit for them.

“If the food-truck industry will start to comply with the rules, I see a real opportunity for us to expand these zones throughout downtown, so the industry can do even better,” he said. “But it’s hard for us to do that when we know they’re not playing by the rules today.”

Currently, about 60 food trucks are licensed by the city.

The 2012 ordinance expanded the hours food trucks can operate and repealed a previous ban on cooking on food trucks. Under the old law, the trucks could serve only prepackaged items.

Weeks after the ordinance was passed, two food-truck operators sued the city in Cook County circuit court to try to overturn it.

The still-pending lawsuit — filed by the owners of the Schnitzel King and Cupcakes for Courage food trucks — challenges the rule that’s supposed to keep food trucks at least 200 feet from restaurants, calls the GPS requirement an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and says too few food-truck stands are allowed downtown.

“The city believes the laws and regulations strike the right balance between the interests of food trucks and those of restaurants,” city Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said.

Food trucks parked in tow zones on Wacker Drive between Monroe Street and Adams Street. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Food trucks parked in tow zones on Wacker Drive between Monroe Street and Adams Street. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Contributing: Jason Knowles, ABC7