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Restaurant industry gets behind relaxed rules for food trucks

A lawsuit to overturn city restrictions on food trucks failed, but the president of the Illinois Restaurant Association said Monday he is open expanding how long trucks can stay in one location. | File photo

Calling food trucks a pivotal part of Chicago’s “culinary scene,” Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia on Monday threw his formidable support behind a plan to allow Chicago food trucks to park and stay longer in one legal space — perhaps up to six hours.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) had proposed allowing Chicago food trucks to set up shop in one location for six hours. That’s triple the current limit of two hours.

Moreno argued then that a legislative solution is the only alternative now that food truck owners have have lost their court fight to overturn the city’s restrictive food truck ordinance.

The alderman said he was somewhat flexible on the six hours. But he argued that food truck owners who take “40 minutes to set up and 40 minutes to tear down” need longer than two hours to stay in one place if they are to survive and thrive in Chicago.

On Monday, Toia said he was prepared to support a longer, stay-in-one-place rule to keep food trucks in Chicago.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, is willing to look at increasing the amount of time food trucks can set up in one place in Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, is willing to look at increasing the amount of time food trucks can set up in one place in Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

“The hours should be raised. Two hours is definitely too short of a time, too quick of a turnover time. Restauranteurs understand that you’ve got to set up and break down any time you’re opening and closing a restaurant or food truck,” said Toia, former owner of Leona’s Restaurants.

“Chicago is the culinary capital of the United States and food trucks are part of our great culinary scene here. We have to figure out how we can work to help them stay longer in the designated zones.”

Toia said the only question is how long the new, stay-in-one-legal-place limit should be.

“I want to make sure that all the food trucks feel that it should be six hours. Should it be four? Should it be six? I’m not sure yet. I want to communicate with everybody and make sure that everyone in the food truck community feels comfortable with the [new] hours being proposed. We’ll definitely get to the table and work something out with everybody,” he said.

The Circuit Court suit decided in the city’s favor also took aim at the requirement that food trucks stay 200 feet away from stationary restaurants and have GPS devices on board so City Hall can track their movements.

When it comes to brokering a legislative solution, Toia was adamant about retaining the 200-foot bubble that protects brick-and-mortar restaurants.

But he was open to the possibility of designating additional food truck stands across the city in conjunction with the local alderman and chambers of commerce.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno  — a liberal Democrat — joined forces with the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute to promote the interests of Chicago's food trucks. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno — a liberal Democrat — joined forces with the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute to promote the interests of Chicago’s food trucks. | Sun-Times file photo

“There should be probably more stands in our food desert areas. We should definitely have more stands around city colleges and maybe more stands by Loyola [University] on the North Side,” Toia said.

“We have a fair amount of food stands downtown. But I would like to also make sure these food trucks are getting out to our 77 communities. There’s a lot of areas that could definitely be very profitable for food trucks to go into, too. We have a quite a few stands right now in the downtown area. But I’m always willing to communicate” and negotiate.

The two-hour rule was put into place in 2012 as part of the landmark ordinance that finally allowed for cooking aboard food trucks in Chicago.

But for the past four years, the two-hour rule was widely flouted with impunity, a joint investigation by the Sun-Times and the ABC7 Chicago I-Team found last summer.

Virtually every weekday, trucks stayed for six hours or longer in the same spots, but the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection rarely cited anybody for violating the ordinance.

Many food trucks owners said they had no choice but to break the rule or else they would go out of business.

Emanuel ordered increased enforcement after the reports from the Sun-Times and ABC7, and dozens of violations were handed out to food trucks earlier this year. Some truck operators said they began keeping close watch on how long they remained in the same spot, to avoid hefty fines.

Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, lost the lawsuit she filed 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.  She has said she will appeal the decision. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, lost the lawsuit she filed 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. She has said she will appeal the decision. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

The issue has made for strange bedfellows in Chicago politics, as Moreno — a liberal Democrat known as “the hipster alderman” — joined forces with the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute on behalf of the food trucks.

The institute recently launched blistering attacks on Emanuel, including a cartoon depicting the ballet-loving mayor in a pink tutu alongside an inspector ticketing food trucks.

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

The institute has received funding from family foundation of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the right-wing Charles Koch Institute, records show.

The Illinois Food Truck Owners Association has praised Moreno’s six-hour rule as a “positive first step towards treating food truck owners properly instead of as second-class citizens.”

Soon after the 2012 ordinance went into effect, food truck owners sued the city to challenge another longstanding rule prohibiting them from operating within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The plaintiff in the suit — Laura Pekarik, represented for free by a conservative, anti-regulation legal group from Virginia — lost in Cook County Circuit Court on Dec. 5 but promised to appeal.

Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos