Three Cities Show How Food Trucks Live and Die on Political Whim

Maybe you don't care about food trucks.

Maybe you eat leftovers at your desk, or frequent the restaurant next to your office.

But if you care about people having access to good, reasonably priced food, and the ability to open and operate a safe, responsible and successful business, the food-truck fight happening across the country should matter to you.

Three cities - Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. - exemplify the varying degrees of government rules that dictate what you can eat and who can serve it to you.

At the worst end of the spectrum is Chicago.

Chicago works unabashedly to make it difficult for food trucks to exist within city limits.

Since the 1980s, the status of the city's food-truck regulations has been a point of serious contention between food-truck owners and the restaurateurs and politicians who oppose their existence.

In 1986, a city ordinance that made it illegal for food carts and food trucks to operate within 200 feet of a restaurant was overturned in a Cook County Circuit Court.

"The law made no sense," said Lou Elovitz, the attorney who argued successfully in favor of Thunderbird Catering Co., the plaintiff fought against the 200-foot limit. "Why would a restaurant be entitled to keep a competitor away? Because they pay rent? That makes no sense. People have a right to buy food anywhere. We're talking about food, sustenance - people must eat."

But again in 1991, it became illegal for food trucks to do business within 200 feet of a restaurant (except for those serving construction workers, which received a special exemption from the city).

Not surprisingly, as of July 2012, there were only about 120 food trucks on the road in Chicago, only 50 of which constitute modern "gourmet" food trucks; the rest generally served construction sites, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. In 2012, the city passed revisions to the food-truck laws that allowed food-truck owners to cook on board (previously they had been banned from preparing food onboard their vehicles), but also added language requiring food trucks to have a GPS tracker on at all times.

The 200-foot rule still stands today. And those backing the city's restaurants, including Tom Tunney, the 44th Ward Alderman and owner of the Ann Sather chain of restaurants, make no secret that the main driver behind the city's oppressive rules is to protect established businesses.

"One of the major issues is spacing from brick-and-mortar restaurants," Tunney told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011. "We've got work to do. We need to hear from all sides. We need to make sure we protect ... restaurants and foster a trend that, I think, is gonna be here for a while."

On the other side of the country, Los Angeles and its residents experience an entirely different food-truck culture.

According to Bloomberg writer Stephanie Armour, Los Angeles had more than 2,400 food trucks as of 2012. These vendors line the streets in neighborhoods all over town, offering customers everything from Korean tacos to lobster rolls to wood-oven pizza.

L.A.'s food truck rules ensure that mobile vendors operate in a way that preserves public safety and don't include wording that would restrict these businesses' freedoms - but only because state law prohibits the city from going any further.

Both the city and county of Los Angeles have attempted to impose local rules to hinder food trucks, only to have the courts strike down these rules.

L.A.'s food-truck culture is thriving - but only because the state declared in the 1993 case of Barajas v. City of Anaheim that: "The use of streets for commercial purposes is a matter of public concern and subject to regulation imposed by the state, and not the city."

So while the practical outcome of this statewide rule may be positive, it comes at the expense of local control.

And then there's the golden child of food-truck regulation: our nation's capital.

Approximately 200 food trucks now operate in Washington, D.C., making up one of the most popular food-truck hubs in the country.

"In D.C., we're very fortunate - people here love food trucks now," said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, who owns and operates BBQ Bus with his husband Tadd. "They come when there are inches of snow on the ground, when it's 100 degrees outside."

D.C.'s food-truck culture is thriving now, but it went through many regulatory growing pains to get to this point.

When the food-truck industry really got going in D.C. in the late 2000s, existing vending laws restricted what businesses could sell, where they could set up and more.

But in 2009, officials at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs - the district's regulatory body - started permitting food trucks as ice cream trucks to alleviate these restrictions.

As food trucks' popularity continued to grow, however, animosity from restaurants increased, too - and so did the push for heavier food-truck regulations, led by newly seated Mayor Vincent Gray.

Mayor Gray proposed regulations that would have prevented trucks from setting up in eight out of the 10 most popular vending sites in the city.

Ultimately, public outcry outweighed pressure from the mayor and restaurants lobbying for stricter rules, and City Council passed a set of regulations that still allows D.C. food trucks to operate successfully.

Cities get the food-truck culture their laws allow for. Politicians who enact rules to restrict competition at the expense of access to food aren't just hurting entrepreneurs - they're also harming the communities these businesses serve.

"The essential question people should be asking is 'does this policy allow for increased access to food?'" Che said.

As L.A., D.C. and Chicago exemplify, when it comes to food trucks the rules are never really the rules; at least not for long, and not without a fight.