City Rules Lure, Push Away Food Truck Flavors

In Los Angeles, food trucks are heralded as "the new incubators of culinary innovation."

Vendors line the streets in neighborhoods all over town, offering customers everything from Korean tacos to lobster rolls to wood-oven pizza.

But in other cities, such as Pittsburgh and Chicago, food trucks are marginalized. No street food culture exists, because the people who live there simply aren't exposed to the possibility of a nontraditional dining experience.

That's because in many of the major cities in which food trucks are outside the norm, strict laws exist that prohibit these businesses from taking root.

In fact, some of these cities keep food trucks away from brick-and-mortar competition with a 500-foot pole.

That's the case in Pittsburgh, where the city mandates that food trucks can't operate within 500 feet of a business that sells a similar product (food trucks also are legally required to move every 30 minutes).

In Cranston, R.I., food trucks can't be within 1,000 feet of any restaurant.

And in Chicago, food trucks can't operate within 200 feet of any business that serves or prepares food -- from the city's finest steakhouse to the neighborhood 7-Eleven. To enforce this rule, the city requires food trucks to install GPS tracking devices.

These restrictive laws forced food-truck entrepreneurs Kristin and Greg Burke out of Illinois.

For several years, the Burkes could be found at the helm of their popular food-truck business, "Schnitzel King," which was famous for its variety of Chicago-style schnitzel sandwiches sold throughout city and around the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus.

"We had a strong, loyal following," Kristin said. "Unfortunately, because of the restrictive food-truck laws we couldn't make enough money to survive and support our growing family."

The Burkes moved to North Dakota earlier this year -- Schnitzel King is no more.

Robert Frommer, an attorney for the D.C.-based Institute for Justice, is representing the duo in the case Burke v. city of Chicago, a lawsuit challenging Chicago's 200-foot limit and the GPS tracking requirement.

"Opening and operating a food truck in Chicago is somewhere between difficult and impossible," Frommer said. "The city has put together a menagerie of rules that seem almost intended to make it as hard as possible to open up and be successful."

Frommer said one of the main drivers behind Chicago's stringent food-truck regulations is the influence of the city's major restaurant groups. In 2010, the Chicago Tribune uncovered notes from the Illinois Restaurant Association revealing the group's support of the 200-foot rule, in addition to much more onerous rules, such as requiring all food truck owners to have already established a brick-and-mortar restaurant in order to operate, which didn't make it into the final ordinance.

The push for harsh regulations in favor of established brick-and-mortar businesses also is the case in Pittsburgh and Cranston, where strict food-truck regulations exist solely to protect the local restaurant industry.

But when it comes to food trucks and restaurants, it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.

"The difference between L.A. and other cities is that it addresses public safety concerns and then steps back to let the people decide what they want to eat," Frommer said.

"As a result, L.A. has not only one of the best food-truck markets in the country, but also one of the best restaurant scenes as well."

Politicians across the country who have embraced heavy restrictions on who can serve food where should look West and take notice of Los Angeles' dual brick-and-mortar and mobile restaurant landscape.

Whether it's made in a deli or a truck, consumers should have the right to buy the food they love, and chefs should have the right to prepare it for them.