Chicago’s Food Truck Restrictions Can Stand, Illinois Supreme Court Rules

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The lawsuit, filed in 2012 by food truck owner Laura Pekarik claimed a city rule prohibiting food trucks from parking within 200 feet of any establishment that serves food forces food trucks to make concessions to help their bricks-and-mortar competitors succeed.

Chicago Tribune

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Chicago’s food truck regulations are constitutional and that the city can protect restaurants from their wheeled competitors.

The court affirmed the ruling of the appellate court and the circuit court before it, which also had decided in favor of the city in a lawsuit that claimed Chicago’s food truck restrictions suppress competition.

The lawsuit, filed in 2012 by food truck owner Laura Pekarik, who runs Cupcakes for Courage, claimed a city rule prohibiting food trucks from parking within 200 feet of any establishment that serves food — a category that includes convenience stores with hot dog rollers — forces food trucks to make concessions to help their bricks-and-mortar competitors succeed.

Another part of the law that mandates food trucks carry GPS devices so that the city can track their whereabouts constitutes a “warrantless search” and violates privacy protections, the suit claimed.

Chicago food truck operators say the city’s restrictions have driven entrepreneurs out of business and stunted the local scene even as it has thrived elsewhere in the nation.

The state’s highest court, in its unanimous decision, said that the city has a legitimate government interest in protecting bricks-and-mortar restaurants because they bring long-term stability and economic growth to neighborhoods.

The 200-foot rule balances that interest with those of food trucks, which bring “a life and energy” to the city but don’t have the same stabilizing effect, it said.

“Indeed, the business model of food trucks and a good deal of their appeal are built on mobility, not stability: The trucks may be in the City one day and in Evanston or Aurora the next,” the court wrote.

Regarding the GPS requirement, the court ruled it is the best and most accurate way to locate a food truck for health inspections or in case of a public health emergency. The city has never requested the location data from the service provider that collects it and the data is not available to the public, the court noted.

Pekarik wasn’t immediately available to comment. Her lawyer, Robert Frommer of the Institute of Justice in Arlington, Va., said the ruling is disappointing.

“For over a century the Illinois constitution has protected the right to earn an honest living,” he said. “Today’s decision gravely threatens that right because it allows the government to stifle one person’s dream so another private party financially benefits.”

The decision on mandatory GPS tracking sets “dangerous” precedent, he added, because it “essentially allows Big Brother through occupational licensing.”

Frommer said in the coming weeks he plans to evaluate whether Pekarik could or should petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment. About 65 food trucks currently operate in Chicago, half the number that roamed the streets before the city ordinance was adopted in 2012, estimates Gabriel Wiesen, president of the Illinois Food Truck Association and owner of Beavers Donuts, which operates three food trucks and a store in the French Market.

Though Chicago established stands where food trucks can gather, and last year it held 43 food truck festivals in Daley Plaza and Pioneer court, the vast majority of the Loop is off-limits to food trucks because of the 200-foot rule. That has created stiff competition for the few available downtown spots that some have likened to a “wild west” environment, and made it hard for office workers craving a lobster roll or tamale dished from a truck window to get their fix.

Chicago ranked 13th, out of 20, in a report last year from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that analyzed cities’ regulatory environments for food trucks. Portland, Ore., Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis topped the list as friendliest to food trucks. Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Seattle were deemed most challenging.

Though the licensing process in Chicago isn’t as onerous as in other cities, “the experience of operating a food truck in Chicago is perhaps one of the most difficult in the country,” the report said.

Pekarik ceased her regular food truck route because the limited parking prevented her from promising customers she would be in a certain location, and she feared getting a ticket. Violations of the ordinance carry a penalties of $1,000 to $2,000.

Her cupcake truck is now used only for catering or special events and most of Pekarik’s business comes from her storefronts in Elmhurst and Oak Park.

Since 2013 food trucks have been issued 15 citations for violating the 200-foot rule and 10 for overstaying the 2-hour time limit, according to the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which primarily responds to consumer complaints.

The department says there are 120 licensed food trucks in Chicago today, 78 of which can cook food on board, compared to 110 a year ago and 115 in 2012, before the ordinance took effect.

But Wiesen, of the Illinois Food Trucks Association, said many trucks with active two-year licenses have gone out of business. Wiesen also said the city’s numbers don’t reflect the modern food truck scene because they include businesses like ice cream trucks and pickups that deliver sandwiches to construction sites. By his count, the city loses at least a dozen modern-day food trucks a year.

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