Land of Food Fights

Can You Taste the IlliNOis?

Even as the food vending industry is booming across the country, government officials in the capital and largest cities in Illinois are aggressively hampering food trucks in their communities with onerous red tape. In Lincoln’s erstwhile hometown of Springfield, food trucks are subject to burdensome proximity restrictions that exist to undermine their ability to compete with brick-and-mortar restaurants. Depending on where they are located in the Illinois capital, trucks are required to be anywhere from 50 to 300 feet away from any restaurant. To help vendors navigate these restrictions, the city government released a map in January to designate areas approved for food trucks.

But maps have no fury like politically favored special interests threatened by healthy competition.

After food truck opponents—like a nearby hotel and Italian restaurant—complained about some of the trucks’ prime locations, Mayor Jim Langfelder ordered the trucks to move. Under city law, the government can unilaterally block food trucks from certain areas even when truck owners are obeying the law. The mayor did not bother to disguise the protectionist reasoning, telling one barbecue food truck owner that food trucks’ success “puts our restaurants at a competitive disadvantage.”

This problem of government discriminating against successful entrepreneurs in order to pick winners and losers in the food industry is not much better in Chicago. Food trucks in the Windy City must park at least 200 feet away from any brick-and-mortar restaurant, at the risk of heavy fines as high as $2,000. This harmful protectionism, which the Institute for Justice (IJ) is currently fighting in court, has effectively made food trucks illegal in 97 percent of Chicago’s densely populated downtown, the Loop.

Chicago’s anti-food truck climate has gotten so bad that one the city’s most popular trucks, the award-winning Happy Lobster Truck, is permanently moving one of its trucks to Austin. In explaining the Texas shift to Austin360, Happy Lobster’s said:

“When we were looking to expand, we were looking for a few factors: a place where the weather permitted us to vend year round and a place that was food truck friendly (essentially the opposite of Chicago).”

Illinois is already losing more residents than any other state in the Union, and Chicago was the only one of the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas to drop in population in the previous year. The last thing the remaining residents of Illinois need—from entrepreneurs in Chicago to Lincoln’s bacon-craving ghost in Springfield—is for government officials to chase away food trucks, too.

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