Food trucks jockey for top spots

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Food trucks

Food fight: A city ordinance passed in July 2012 calls for trucks to obey a two-hour limit for each of the designated food truck locations. This seems to cause truck owners much consternation. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

"The biggest spot of all was Dearborn and Monroe, and they took that away to put up two bike lanes," he said. Also gone: spots at the intersection of Wacker Drive and Monroe Street and in front of the Aon Center on Columbus Drive at Randolph Street. "Those three areas kept us going through the first three years," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said his truck and two of the other older ones, Tamale Spaceship and 5411 Empanadas, have worked together to try to drum up business at alternate spots, such as one at the corner of Clark and Monroe streets. Yet for two straight weeks, he said, a movie production's boom lift sat in that spot, and police cars had been parked there the three previous weeks.

Weitz said another problem with the Clark and Monroe spot, as well as one at 30 E. Lake Street (at Wabash), is that they're located on the left side of one-way streets, meaning that when most food trucks park there, their service windows open into traffic rather than toward the sidewalk.

"I tried parking there once backward going the wrong way so the window was on the right side, and the police made me leave," Weitz said.

"We did hear about that specific stop, and they're working on getting that changed," said Jennifer Lipford, communications director for the city's Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department.

Like most of the truck operators interviewed, Weitz said she doesn't abide the two-hour limit "because no one else does," but practical considerations also are involved. The Fat Shallot cooks on board, and Weitz said setup takes an hour, and more time is needed to clean up afterward. Jimmy Nuccio, co-owner of the Beavers Coffee + Donuts truck, said he needs a half hour to get the oil hot and another half hour to break down after service.

"I think the two-hour rule is eventually going to be stricken from the ordinance because it's really not conducive for cooking," said Nuccio, who said sometimes a Beavers employee will park a car in a food truck spot overnight so the truck can take its place early in the morning. "It's a dog-eat-dog kind of thing. Survival of the fittest. If you want the spot, you've got to wake up early. That's how it is."

To Weitz, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.

"I don't know what the solution is, because if they start enforcing the two-hour rule, it's going to be bad for all of us, but people are just getting there earlier and earlier for those spots," she said.

Although Patty Wagon requires setup time, too, Herrera said, "We're playing by the rules. We're going to stick to the two-hour limits."

Lipford said the city established the two-hour rule, in part, to prevent trucks from staking out spots.

"The two-hour rule is there to make it fair so more than one truck can potentially hit part of the lunch crowd," she said, noting that her department had yet to receive any complaints, including, at that point, Patty Wagon's. "Our goal is to make it as easy a possible for them to do business. If there's an issue, we would love to talk about it. We certainly don't want to have some of the problems that other cities have had."

In perhaps the most egregious such example, one Miami food truck owner was arrested for pulling a gun on another food truck owner last year.

But distrust exists between some of Chicago's food trucks and the city. Amy Le, who used to own the DucknRoll truck, said many owners felt that the city didn't listen to the concerns about the number and quality of designated spots and the 200-foot-from-a-restaurant rule. A lawsuit filed in November on behalf of the Schnitzel King and Cupcakes for Courage truck owners challenging the 200-foot rule and the city's requirement that trucks install GPS systems continues to move forward, with a status hearing scheduled for next month.

Several truck owners say they'd still like to get a workable association going, though an attempt last year fizzled.

"We had a discussion with a large group of the trucks about trying to set up a schedule that we would enforce as a group, but it takes one person not wanting to do it for it not to work," said Le, who had assumed a leadership role. She noted that of 55 food truck owners in the discussion, 53 agreed to follow a schedule, but two said no.

"I said we can't enforce this if not everybody's on board."

She also foresaw a problem with restaurants that spin off food trucks (Giordano's, for example) having a resources advantage over the independents in that the restaurant trucks have alternative ways to sell food and more employees who can secure parking spots.

"This is my entire company right here," Herrera said of the Patty Wagon truck.

Also, if a truck that prepares all of its food ahead of time can't find a decent selling spot, all may be lost. So Le isn't surprised by the difficulties and conflicts among the food trucks, but she's no longer experiencing them firsthand because she shut down DucknRoll early this year and opened the Loop restaurant Saucy Porka in May with former Wagyu Wagon food truck chef Rafael Lopez.

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