Mobile merchants get one-year reprieve on licensing as aldermen seek solution

SHARE Mobile merchants get one-year reprieve on licensing as aldermen seek solution

Food trucks on Wacker Drive between Monroe and Adams streets at lunch hour. | Sun-Times file photo

Seven “emerging business permits” due to expire June 15 will be extended for one year to give aldermen time to hammer out terms of a permanent “mobile merchants license” that does not create an unlevel playing field with heavily-regulated food trucks.

The City Council’s License Committee granted the extension on Tuesday — with the possibility for additional permits during the year — a week after aldermanic opposition stalled Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create a new and permanent “mobile merchants license.”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, suggested the City Council use the additional year to examine both the food truck and mobile merchants licenses and, perhaps, draft a new ordinance relaxing standards for both.

Food trucks have chafed at a rule that requires them to park at least 200 feet away from brick and mortar restaurants and stay in one place for no longer than two hours.

“Two hours isn’t enough to do the selling of whatever they’re vending. And we’ve heard that from the food trucks, also,” Tunney said Tuesday.

“We’re gonna look at both because there are similarities. We don’t want to go in one direction on retailing and another direction on food. We want to make sure that … we’re in concert with the whole idea of mobile vending — whether it’s food or skirts.”

If the full Council approves, the seven “emerging business permits” will now expire on June 15, 2019.

Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, characterized the two-hour limit that already applies to those temporary permits as a “killer” for mobile merchants.

Some entrepreneurs have been “kind of limping along with that two-hour limit” while others “don’t even bother to get started,” Kregor said.

“To find a parking space, set up and let shoppers know that you’re there, come on board the truck and look at what you’ve got, maybe try it on — it’s just not possible in two hours,” she said.

Kregor said it’s a “real shame” because “pop-ups” including mobile vendors can be a “great force of excitement and novelty” in a shopping district and draw out customers who may not otherwise have come out to shop.

“They can’t really do that unless they have enough time to create the buzz so that people can find them and know they’re there. And once people come out to shop at that truck, they’ll shop in the neighborhood as well,” she said.

Although Chicago’s food truck ordinance has, so far, been upheld by the courts, Kregor branded the 200-foot rule “unconstitutional, anti-competitive and choosing some businesses over others.” She also called it “extremely foolish.”

“Shopping begets shopping. We have retail corridors which thrive because there’s a mix of different opportunities to shop. These pop-ups can really add to that,” she said.

Tunney said the trucking industry wants more “events where there’s a “combination of food trucks and maybe some retail trucks” to generate excitement.

“That’s what we’re hearing moreso than necessarily lengthening the [two-hour] time limit or the 200-foot rule,” the alderman said.

In December, a state appeals court unanimously rejected a lawsuit that challenged the 2012 food truck ordinance.

Justice Sheldon Harris wrote then that the city has a “critical interest in maintaining a thriving food service industry of which brick-and-mortar establishments are an essential part.” The 200-foot rule “represents a rational means of ensuring the general welfare of the city and is neither arbitrary nor unreasonable,” Harris wrote.

Tunney agreed that “neighborhood retail is the backbone” of communities.

“If everything becomes mobile, then you kind of lose the infrastructure of neighborhood retail. I don’t like that,” Tunney said.

“If we have a criticism from our residents, it’s, ‘Oh my God. What about all of the vacant storefronts? What are you gonna do about it?'”

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