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Food-truck operators lose bid to overturn city regulations

City inspectors are shown earlier this year, checking licenses of food trucks on Wacker Drive. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

It’s a stomach punch to the food truck industry in Chicago.

A Cook County judge on Monday upheld a city ordinance restricting food trucks from parking within 200 feet of brick-and mortar restaurants, rejecting arguments that the law gives traditional restaurants competitive advantages.

In her ruling, Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos backed two of the city’s reasons for the rule and dismissed a third.

She agreed the rule rationally balances the needs of restaurants and food trucks, which she described as the “rising young pop star” of the industry. She also agreed the rule serves to decrease sidewalk congestion.

However, citing simple economics, she tossed aside an assertion by the city that the rule encourages food trucks to park in neighborhoods with few restaurant options, such as Englewood and South Shore.

Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, filed a lawsuit four years ago to overturn the city’s food truck restrictions. She has a store in Elmhurst and two food trucks, one of which is licensed to operate in Chicago. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, filed a lawsuit four years ago to overturn the city’s food truck restrictions. She has a store in Elmhurst and two food trucks, one of which is licensed to operate in Chicago. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The logic is flawed, Demacopoulos said, because entrepreneurs go where the money is, and disposable income is limited in those neighborhoods.

Despite the soft spot, Demacopoulos said the rule holds up.

“Nothing will change and that is disappointing,” said Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, who filed the lawsuit four years ago.

“I was really hoping to be able to bring out my truck onto the streets of Chicago and sell to my customers where they want to see us go.”

“What is supposed to happen is that people decide where to get their lunch, not City Hall,” said Robert Frommer, Pekarik’s attorney.

Pekarik plans to appeal.

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Demacopoulos said the 200-foot rule “does not come close to excluding entire areas of Chicago, including the Loop.”

“Her business is thriving,” Demacopoulos said of Pekarik.

Pekarik, the judge noted, has a brick-and-mortar store in Elmhurst, two food trucks — one of which is licensed in Chicago — and 15 employees.

In her 20-page decision, Demacopoulos also snuffed out Pekarik’s other major argument regarding a city mandate that requires GPS devices be placed in all food trucks.

The presence of a GPS device does not violate privacy nor does it amount to an unreasonable search, Demacopoulos said.

The argument “borders on the absurdity” she said in court, noting that the device only transmits a positioning signal while the truck is doing business.

“That a business serving food to the public should be permitted to conceal its location from government scrutiny, including the public health department, simply because its on wheels is incomprehensible,” she stated in her decision.

Traditional restaurants are regularly subject to unannounced inspections, “there is no colorable reason why food trucks should not be subject to the same,” she said.

Demacopoulos acknowledged that similar cases cited in the lawsuit from places such as New York and California tend to show a “strong disapproval of proximity limitations or any geographic restraints . . . as unfair attempts to regulate competition.”

She followed the acknowledgment by noting: “They stand in contrast to Illinois law.”

Pekarik filed the suit in 2012 after the city council repealed a prohibition against cooking on board food trucks, a move that ushered in a new wave of food entrepreneurs competing for places to park.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration responded by setting up dozens of designated curbside “mobile food vendor stands” where the newly licensed trucks could operate.

But there were too few food-truck stands downtown, Pekarik argued.

Demacopoulos’ decision was also blow to a Virginia-based group called the Institute for Justice, which is providing Pekarik with free legal representation.

The group has ties to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers — Charles and David — who are among the largest financiers of Republican politicians and right-wing causes. The octogenarian brothers control Koch Industries, the country’s second-biggest privately held company, and they staunchly oppose government regulation of business.

Laura Pekarik, owner of the Cupcakes for Courage food truck, and her attorney, Robert Frommer, spoke to reporters outside a Daley Center courtroom Monday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Laura Pekarik, owner of the Cupcakes for Courage food truck, and her attorney, Robert Frommer, spoke to reporters outside a Daley Center courtroom Monday. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times