WATCHDOGS: Embattled food trucks get conservative groups’ support

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“We don’t want to make the situation worse than it is,” says Louis Dourlain, owner of the Boo Coo Roux food truck. “The city is going around giving big, big citations.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Food-truck operators in Chicago — facing a crackdown by City Hall on a business that’s found big support among the young and hip — are getting backing from groups financed by staunch conservatives including the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Lawyers from the Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va., are pressing a long-running lawsuit to overturn the city’s rules, which bar food trucks from doing business within 200 feet of restaurants.

The Institute for Justice says it got “initial seed funding” from Charles G. Koch of Wichita, Kansas, and recognizes the “generous” financial support of David H. Koch, who lives in New York. The octogenarian brothers control Koch Industries, the country’s second-biggest privately held company, and are among the largest financiers of Republican politicians and right-wing causes nationally.

Another conservative organization, the Illinois Policy Institute, which ramped up its campaign on behalf of Chicago’s food trucks in recent weeks, has received funding from the Charles Koch Institute and Rauner’s family foundation, according to publicly available tax returns those groups have filed with the Internal Revenue Service as not-for-profit organizations.

Food-truck operators have come under increased scrutiny by City Hall since Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed to increase enforcement of the food-truck ordinance last month after a joint investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago found city rules were widely ignored and rarely enforced. The Sun-Times and ABC7 found food trucks routinely staying far longer than the two-hour limit on doing business in the same spot and often parking in tow zones, turn lanes or bus stops.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection says the agency has issued 34 citations since Emanuel’s comments on Aug. 29 — nearly six times as many as it issued in the nearly four years since the Chicago City Council approved the food-truck ordinance in October 2012. Inspectors also have given a dozen warnings in recent weeks.

City inspectors check licenses of food trucks on Clark Street in the Loop. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

City inspectors check licenses of food trucks on Clark Street in the Loop. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

City Hall’s new efforts have drawn criticism from the Illinois Policy Institute.

“I love the smell of citations in the morning,” the institute has Emanuel saying in a cartoon posted on its Facebook page.

The cartoon depicts the mayor, who studied ballet, in a pink tutu, standing with an inspector writing tickets.

The institute has started an online “save Chicago food trucks” petition drive, saying, “Rahm’s crackdown could force the city’s food trucks out of business.”

“Chicagoans clearly want food trucks,” says the Illinois Policy Institute’s Austin Berg. “The people of Chicago don’t want these rules.”

When a reader on the group’s Facebook page wrote that he would be angry if a food truck opened outside his restaurant, an institute staffer replied, “If your restaurant doesn’t suck, you don’t have to worry about losing customers.”

The organization, which has offices in Chicago and Springfield, doesn’t disclose its financial supporters. But tax records show it got a $60,516 grant from the Charles Koch Institute in 2014 and larger amounts from groups that have received millions of dollars from a Koch family foundation.

Rauner’s foundation gave the institute more than $625,000 in the five years before he was elected governor, records show.

The Institute for Justice — which has many of the same funding sources as the Illinois Policy Institute — has made Chicago one of the key battlegrounds in its “National Street Vending Initiative,” which seeks the repeal of food-truck laws.

Robert Frommer. | Institute for Justice

Robert Frommer. | Institute for Justice

Chicago’s rule barring food trucks from doing business within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants was designed solely with those restaurants’ interests in mind, says Robert Frommer, the Institute for Justice attorney who has represented food-truck owners free of charge in their court fight against the Emanuel administration.

“Competition is the American way,” Frommer says. “We want people to decide who makes their lunch, not politicians.”

As food trucks grew in popularity across the country, especially among millennials, the Chicago City Council for the first time agreed in 2012 to allow them to prepare food on site. Previously, they were allowed only to sell prepackaged food.

The 2012 law also allowed the city to establish 37 “mobile food-vendor stands.”

Within weeks, two food-truck operators sued to overturn it. In court filings, Frommer has argued the 200-foot rule is unconstitutional and that there are too few food-truck stands downtown.

The original plaintiffs in the case were the owners of the Schnitzel King and Cupcakes for Courage food trucks. But Frommer says Schnitzel King owner Greg Burke went out of business, and he moved out-of-state.

Laura Pekarik, the owner of the Cupcakes for Courage truck, had quit her job to care for a sick sister and perfected her cupcake recipes by baking to make her sister feel better. After her sister’s cancer went into remission, Pekarik “originally thought about returning to her previous job but instead decided that she wanted to go into business for herself,” according to the lawsuit. “Laura didn’t have the money to open a storefront location, so she instead chose to sell cupcakes out of a food truck.”

Frommer says the city’s lax enforcement of the 200-foot rule wasn’t causing any problems and that Chicago’s fines for food-truck infractions — which start at $1,000 — are too high.

The group also has intervened, on behalf of Chicago rideshare drivers, in a lawsuit brought by cab companies, records show.

Frommer says the Institute for Justice has thousands of individual contributors besides the Kochs and that donors don’t dictate what he does.

Beyond their involvement in national politics, the Kochs might be best known in Chicago for the piles of petroleum coke they stored on property owned by one of their companies on the Southeast Side. Dust from there fouled surrounding working-class neighborhoods last year.

The Koch brothers also poured tens of millions of dollars into efforts to defeat President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012.

The Institute for Justice and the Illinois Policy Institute are listed as “partner organizations” by the Charles Koch Institute.

Facing the onslaught of city inspections, many food-truck owners — who until recently were defiant of the rules — appear to be abiding by them.

Under the city’s rules, no food trucks are supposed to be doing business outside a designated food-truck stand within the same block. But the Sun-Times and ABC7 found as many as 13 of them — packed bumper to bumper, from intersection to intersection — in the 100 block of South Clark Street, most of them outside the food-truck stand.

Since Emanuel announced the crackdown, the trucks are staying in the food-truck stand and not parking on the rest of that block, reporters found.

City officials couldn’t explain why signs mark that food-truck stand as being 105 feet long, though they initially said the zone is supposed to be about 40 feet long.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who says his office has gotten complaints about food trucks from restaurants for years, introduced an ordinance Wednesday to reduce the South Clark Street food-truck stand to 40 feet. He also is proposing to create a new stand on Franklin Street.

The day after Emanuel called for increased enforcement, food-truck owners met and decided to “self-regulate,” calling out colleagues who break the rules, says Louis Dourlain, co-owner of the Boo Coo Roux Cajun food truck.

After Boo Coo Roux had parked for two hours on Clark Street on a recent afternoon, the alarm on Dourlain’s cell phone went off, and he shut the truck’s curbside window and service counter. Boo Coo Roux then moved to another downtown food-truck stand, even though Dourain says he does only 30 percent as much business there as on Clark Street.

An association of food-truck owners says most of the citations issued to its members in the past three weeks were for operating in the same spot for more than two hours.

Dourlain says most food-truck owners “are more on the liberal side,” and he was unaware of the politically conservative financial backing for the groups that have taken up their fight with City Hall.

Dourlain also says he hopes the city will create more spaces for trucks downtown.

“We all know what the frustration is,” Dourlain says. “But we don’t want to make the situation worse than it is. The city is going around giving big, big citations.”

Boo Coo Roux’s paperwork was in order when two inspectors visited the trucks on Clark and in the 100 block of South Wacker Drive during a recent lunch hour.

City inspectors question Francesco Abate of Da Pizza Dude. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

City inspectors question Francesco Abate of Da Pizza Dude. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Francesco Abate, owner of Da Pizza Dude food truck, says he dreams of owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant someday. Waving toward restaurants along Wacker Drive, he says: “We have to understand there are people paying big rent here.”

He says he plans to stick to the rules because food-truck owners “cannot battle with the city.”

“The problem is that we like to bend the rules, and now the city, all of a sudden, says, ‘You know what? We let you slide, we let you slide — time’s up,’ ” Abate says. “A lot of food truck owners are not so smart. And the not-so-smart ones can possibly ruin it for all of us. Or the city is going to probably give them a pounding that they can’t handle, and they’re going to force them out.”

Contributing:Jason Knowles and Ann Pistone of ABC7 Chicago

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