The freedom to eat

John Gamino

“We believe in the vendor, we believe in the little guy,” declared Beth Kregor in her opening remarks of Saturday’s food truck symposium. Kregor, who is the director of the UofC Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic of Entrepreneurship, addressed an eclectic group of university students, locals, and members of the food truck industry gathered in the school’s parking lot.

The day began with a series of panels on the legal status and future of mobile food in Chicago, organized by the IJ Clinic. The little guy, Kregor and the other panelists stressed, often comes from a family of recent immigrants, and may not even speak English. “Most of them are not foodies at all,” said Sean Basinski, a lawyer and street vendor advocate, discrediting the idea that truck owners tend to be already-successful restaurateurs. “It is at best a hard-earned path to middle income,” added Gabriel Wiesen, who started the food truck Beaver’s Coffee & Donuts when he failed to secure funding for a restaurant in Rogers Park.

The need to protect vendors’ legal rights and interests, particularly in cases of language barriers, was emphasized throughout the symposium. Many of the panelists argued that current city laws against mobile food are unnecessarily protectionist in favor of the brick-and-mortar establishment, and even unconstitutional.

Chicago’s regulations are indeed some of the most restrictive among large cities in the country–mobile food vendors are virtually prohibited from selling on public property downtown and cannot prepare food on site. The IJ Clinic cited research showing that food trucks actually help the very restaurants that try to restrict them, increasing foot traffic while serving a faster, less filling meal. To some of the panelists, though, competition wasn’t even a concern. Bert Gall, senior attorney at the IJ, underscored the need to eliminate arbitrary regulations even if the “little guy” happened to be the owner of a comparable brick-and-mortar business.

After the symposium, the trucks serving lunch outside certainly didn’t seem to represent the littlest guys in Chicago. As customers lined up in droves to get their fill, they were encouraged to follow the trucks on Facebook and Twitter. One vendor even described his motivation for work as a “passion for branding.” But despite the abundant commercialization, the opacity of municipal regulations was still a conspicuous force–one truck, still mired in the process of obtaining a dispensary license, could only legally offer samples from outside the lot.

Of course, the focus on Saturday remained primarily on the food itself. “At what point do I become gluttonous?” asked a panel attendee over free samples of Beaver’s donuts. It was a question that was surely on many peoples’ minds.