Food Fight: IJ Initiative Challenges Protectionist Laws, Seeks to Free Mobile Food Vendors in Chicago & Nationwide

November 20, 2012

Just as mobile food vendors hit the road each day to satisfy the needs of hungry consumers, the Institute for Justice is hitting the road on behalf of these industrious entrepreneurs with groundbreaking new efforts in Chicago and across the nation.

In less than two years, IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative has made us the leading national advocates protecting the economic liberty of street vendors. Our groundbreaking 2011 report, Streets of Dreams, documented the anticompetitive restrictions vendors face in America’s 50 largest cities. Meanwhile, our litigation team brought suit against protectionist vending laws in cities across the country, including El Paso, Atlanta and Hialeah, Fla.

Now, the National Street Vending Initiative is gearing up for its greatest challenge yet: opening the streets of Chicago to mobile food vendors.

Chicago’s nascent food truck entrepreneurs like Greg Burke embody that city’s drive and persistence. Burke was laid off during the recent construction slump. After trying to find other jobs, Greg took a gamble. For years, he served schnitzel sandwiches at Chicago Bears tailgates to rave reviews from his friends, so Greg invested his life savings in a vintage Jeep with the dream of becoming Chicago’s Schnitzel King. Together with his fiancée, Schnitzel Queen Kristin Casper, the two have created a small, thriving food truck business they can call their own.

Chicago food truck entrepreneur Laura Pekarik shows how food trucks create jobs and are often stepping stones to bigger things. Pekarik owns the Cupcakes for Courage food truck. After her sister, Kathryn, was diagnosed with cancer, the two worked on cupcake recipes to keep their minds off Kathryn’s illness. Once Kathryn recovered, Laura took those recipes and opened her food truck. Cupcakes for Courage’s success has let Laura expand her business by opening a brick-and-mortar bakery in Elmhurst, Ill., this past September.

Chicago food truck owners were encouraged earlier this year when the city began updating its out-of-date vending laws. (Chicago, for example, was the only major city in the nation to prohibit cooking on board a food truck.) But a few politically connected restaurateurs, including an influential alderman who owns several restaurants in the city, saw the new law as a way to distance themselves from their mobile counterparts. The law keeps food trucks from operating within 200 feet of any brick-and-mortar business that sells food, which, in effect, makes running a food truck nearly impossible in large swaths of the city, including The Loop—downtown Chicago. The law also imposes fines that lay bare its true anticompetitive intentions: A food truck that now sets up too close to a restaurant can be fined up to $2,000, but the fine for parking in front of a fire hydrant in Chicago is only $100. In an Orwellian twist, every food truck in Chicago must now be equipped with a GPS tracking device, which lets government officials spy on the truck to see if it is illegally competing.

As documented in IJ’s new food truck Myths and Realities document, food trucks help, not hurt, the restaurant industry. In fact, food trucks often help increase restaurant sales by increasing foot traffic. And food trucks often collaborate with restaurants to offer customers new opportunities that would otherwise not be available. It is no surprise that many successful food truck owners go on to open restaurants, or that restaurateurs are launching food trucks as a way to reach customers and market their brands.

Represented by IJ, Greg, Kristin and Laura are now suing the city of Chicago in state court to strike down this law that does nothing more than unconstitutionally protect favored businesses from competition.

But IJ is doing more than just fighting bad food truck laws. Through its National Street Vending Initiative, IJ is providing a guide to other cities that want to pass good food truck laws. With our new report, Food Truck Freedom: How to Build Better Food Truck Laws in Your City, IJ identifies two general principles that are keys for good food truck policy. First, cities should not pass laws to protect preferred industries from competition. Second, cities should ensure that their laws are easy to understand, do not go any further than what is needed to deal with the problem at hand and give food trucks the freedom to come up with their own ways to solve issues when they arise.

Freed-up food vendors not only create jobs, they help transform their little corner of a city into places that are more exciting and fun places to live. In the months ahead, we will help Chicago and many other cities recognize these facts one good meal at a time.

Robert Frommer is an IJ attorney.

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