The Future Of Food Trucks In Chicago

Cupcakes for courage
Cupcakes for Courage food truck. Courtesy Laura Pekarik
Cupcakes for courage
Cupcakes for Courage food truck. Courtesy Laura Pekarik

The Future Of Food Trucks In Chicago

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The fate of a years-long battle over Chicago’s food truck ordinance now rests in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court, after oral arguments were given Wednesday.

The ordinance requires food trucks to use a GPS tracking device and prohibits them from parking within 200 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Violating the parking regulation could cost a vendor up to $2,000.

Mobile cupcake vendor Laura Pekarik, who filed the lawsuit against the city in 2012, argues these regulations are unconstitutional and detrimental to food trucks in Chicago. Yet, the city defends the ordinance and says it balances the interests of businesses and has other public benefits.

Morning Shift digs into the longstanding case and its potential impact on the food truck scene in Chicago.

How did the food truck case make it to the Illinois Supreme Court? 

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz: A food truck owner who owns Cupcakes for Courage filed this lawsuit back in 2012. She lost at the trial court. She lost again at the court of appeals. And so then she appealed again and it went to the Supreme Court… so she just keeps fighting.

The breakdown of main arguments from both sides in the case

Jenn White: Overall, what do food truck operators say about this ordinance?

Elejalde-Ruiz: Most of them say it has made it very difficult for them to operate in the city. They don’t have enough places to put their trucks, which means that they’re fighting with each other for those places. … It also just means they don’t make enough money, so they have to go to places where there’s less traffic. And they just can’t make it work. They say that it’s putting people out of business and the scene here is just dwindling while it’s flourishing elsewhere.

White: Why did the city establish this ordinance in the first place? Why did the think there was a need?

Elejalde-Ruiz: There was a concern that food trucks would take business away from established restaurants. So the city says it’s trying to balance the interests of the restaurants with the food trucks. Restaurants obviously have to pay high property taxes in many cases and have regulations of their own, so they figure food trucks, to make it fair — in the city’s words — should have similar restrictions. After the fact, they also described other benefits of these regulations. For example, limiting congestion on sidewalks as people wait for their food and also encouraging people to go to more underserved parts of the city that don’t have so many restaurants, hoping the food trucks there could fill that gap.

On Chicago’s food truck scene

Laura Pekarik: When I started my business in May of 2011, it was a totally different scene from when they put the restrictions on the food trucks… I had a specific stop and location that I would meet my customers and they started to enjoy my cupcakes and they would look for me there on that same day and that same time, and I would let them know that I’d be there.

White: You filed this lawsuit more than six years ago now. What changes do you want to see in Chicago’s food truck scene that also balances some of the concerns of the restaurant industry?

Pekarik: If we win our case, the 200-foot rule will be struck down as well as the GPS requirement. And if that were to happen, myself —  and I’m sure other food trucks included —  would be available to operate their business as they see fit and visit the customers where they want to see.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.

GUESTS: Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, business reporter for Chicago Tribune

Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage

LEARN MORE: State Supreme Court fight over food truck limits: ‘Proper’ balancing of interests or ‘blatant protectionism’? (Chicago Tribune 1/23/19)