To be honest, we didn’t even pay that much attention when the latest food truck kerfuffle was kicked off with an editorial by Glenn Keefer (of Keefer’s) in Chicago Business. We felt like we’d heard all the arguments and, in any case, the well-connected Illinois Restaurant Association, with the help of the Chicago Police Department, seems to be doing a good job of strangling the baby in the crib. But for whatever reason, this kerfuffle seems to have a life of its own, with many sides weighing in. And by now, another party has had a chance to weigh in on the subject in a way that it hadn’t two years ago— reality. So we’re going to look at the arguments from both sides and compare them against what we’ve observed in the couple of years that food trucks have been out there on the streets, and see how much of which skies have or haven’t fallen.
1: The Keefer Editorial
Glenn Keefer of the River North restaurants Keefer’s and Keefer’s Kaffe launched the Keeferfuffle with this piece in Crain’s. His arguments are that food trucks are free riders who don’t contribute taxes like his restaurants do; that they steal customers by parking in front of existing businesses; that they peddle substandard fare; and that the answer is a pilot program which assigns locations, mandates fixed sanitation equipment, and limits the number of trucks.
2: The Comments
Though a few of the comments at Crain’s are personal and nasty toward Keefer, some good points are raised as well. Aaron A.: “When people talk about food trucks not having real estate costs, they seem to forget that under current laws, all that food has to be prepared and packaged in a licensed commercial kitchen.” John K.: “I’m failing to come up of a single industry where one business owner is given such a wide barrier against a competitor. I fail to see why these sorts of barriers should exist for food trucks when they park.” Jonathan T.: “When was the last time you had to take a bath on an entire days worth of business because it was raining? Are there stretches of 4 month periods where you will take a 80% hit in business because its cold outside. Maybe we should make a law requiring everyone who wants to patronize your establishment to wait outside for 10 minutes before coming in to the restaurant? It’s only fair since you have the unfair advantage of climate control and a roof!”
3. Dan Rosenthal Backs Keefer
Dan Rosenthal (Trattoria No. 10, Sopraffina) backs Keefer in this Sun-Times piece: “The reason I’ve located where I have is there’s a very dense population close to my locations. Why should somebody be allowed to take advantage of that for less than one-tenth of the expense?… Every dollar I lose in sales to a food truck down the street costs me 50-cents in profit. It doesn’t take a lot of decline in sales for restaurants to go out of business, particularly in this economy.” He also thinks that food truck proponents idealize the movement and don’t realize that it could easily result in established businesses flooding the streets, not the creative one-offs they associate the movement with.
4. The Internet Talks Back
Nick Kokonas of Alinea/Next, noting the improbability of Keefer’s being affected by a sub sandwich truck, tweeted: “Never wanted to do a Ribeye and Opus One Food Truck until just now. But see how silly that sounds? exactly.”
Joe Campagna at Chicago Food Snob: “The battle lines seem to be drawn along creative nimble business ideas and old school brick and mortar restaurants. Are these two really going to compete? Is the nomadic truck that’s taken New York and LA by storm going to shut down traditional restaurants? Did I miss a headline where Danny Meyer or Wolfgang Puck had to close a restaurant because of a food truck? Did a Ruth Chris actually close?… Do I want a sandwich from a truck or a plate of pasta or French inspired mussels? Is this even the same conversation? If I make my lunch, it usually costs me about $3-4 a day. No one’s going to compete against the brown bag, maybe we should ban that option too.”
Foodtruckfreak: “Have you ever given one child 3 quarters and his sibling 10 pennies? The child with 3 quarters may flip out, screaming until they’re blue in the face and emptied of all the tears they can produce because they see it as a blatant injustice. Keefer is the kid with 3 quarters; he has exponentially more resources and luxuries at his disposal than food trucks do. That’s what paying higher taxes affords you (not the right to public streets and walkways). He has the capacity to serve more customers while providing them with a comfortable and reliable place to eat with table-side service. Yet he still cries foul and is throwing tantrum, all the while both he and his “parents” (good ol’ Chicago politicians) get the stink eye from every onlooker. He truly doesn’t understand the great position that his restaurants are in.”
Kuma’s response… well, go here and see for yourself.
5. Richard Myrick in Crain’s
The editor of Mobile Truck, an online magazine about the food truck biz, responds with many of the same arguments as the rest of the online contingent, but his key point from a national perspective is that “The mobile-food industry has been flourishing across the country for nearly four years and with all of the daily research I conduct, I have yet to find a single restaurant that had to shutter its storefront due to food trucks. Chicago’s current legislation has left it as the only city among the 50 most populated cities in the country that doesn’t allow food-truck operators to prepare their fare on board their roaming bistros. The laws are so archaic that Chicago food trucks cannot carry a knife to cut food or add condiments to their products.”
He also notes that the Keefer pilot program would force at least 20% of existing trucks to shut down to meet its 50-truck cap. “Any legislation that is created to oversee food trucks needs to be concerned about public health and safety, not protecting one business model from another.”
6. Our Take
Our sympathies and, we believe, the bulk of the arguments lie with the free market, which is to say the pro-food truck, side of the equation. Dan Rosenthal’s idea that 50 cents of your lunch money belongs to him unless someone tricks him out of it is a good argument for increased competition, and much of the Keefer argument is a wolf in sheep’s clothing designed to cap the number of food trucks and force them to compete away from the Loop and clout-heavy businesses. Competition is the best disinfectant here.
That said, there are legitimate arguments on their side. Why aren’t there 50 Subway trucks hogging all the good spots in the Loop, and who says there might not be at some future point? The idea that food trucks get a free ride on many things restaurants pay expensively for has some validity (though as Crain’s commenters pointed out, it’s not as free a ride as it looks). But by now it’s clear that food trucks are far more often new business incubators, not long-term careers for chefs (as evidenced by the likes of Phillip Foss, Matt Maroni, etc.). And if they’re an effective way to launch new businesses, then it’s legitimate for the city to help foster future large enterprises by giving them a break when they’re small, to collect more revenue later— as happens in many other ways all the time.
But those tax breaks and TIF payouts and special concessions usually benefit the well-connected— as the current state of food truck harassment does. To support the little guy and his food truck even to the modest extent of just letting him be, the city would first have to accept the idea that it’s a good thing to foster the growth of… somebody nobody sent.