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May 2, 2013 05:16 AM

Food trucks, why the obsession?

Decided to start this so maybe some non-chicagoans can chime in why they love food trucks. I travel a lot and in small cities without a significant number of great restaurants there are more food trucks. I think its because a small population that can't support full restaurants tend to drive this "food-truck culture" as i'll so call it. I know that when I am other cities, i don't enjoy seeking out food trucks and standing on the street trying to eat "gourmet" street food. For example, in St. Paul Minnesota, there's a good arepas truck the pulls up in front of my client's office once a week, but then again there is NOTHING to eat around.

Here in Chicago I don't think anything other than cupcake or doughnut trucks will really ever flourish since its not that hard or expensive to open a storefront outside of downtown-proper. I know that I am not interested in finding trucks to get a morsel of something and when other cities (even Chicago did it last year) create Truck Corrals it just seems like a mini-state fair that has slightly better food. Thoughts?

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  1. Have you been to any famous night markets in Asia? What about the food truck pods or outdoor courts in Portland or Austin? Smorgasburg or The Red Hook Ball Fields in Brooklyn?

    Many of these places are about small pop and mom stalls/carts who do one thing and do it extremely well. You don't need to open a full restaurant just to serve your family recipe for one dish. And if someone in your group wants a different cuisine than you, or a beverage or dessert, they can go to the cart next door. Portland has carts selling booze now. A food truck lot I went to in Austin had a ton of picnic tables around, Christmas lights strung up, and it was BYOB. The "standing on the street eating" thing doesn't necessarily apply to all cities with food trucks. In Portland they have pods with seating.

    Overall, there appears to be a net positive effect of food trucks on a community, as a study by the city of Portland found.

    "Food carts have positive impacts on street vitality and neighborhood life in lower density residential neighborhoods as well as in the high density downtown area."

    "Food carts represent beneficial employment opportunities because they provide an improved quality of life and promote social interactions between owners and customers."

    "While many food cart owners want to open a storefront business, there is a financial leap from a food cart operation to opening a storefront. Food cart owners do not frequently access small business development resources available to them, such as bank loans and other forms of assistance."

    1. For the most part, people get in an eating rut around their workplace, so having a new option pop up is always intriguing. In my area of the Loop I believe the city only grants permits to falafel restaurants. While that's not necessarily a bad thing I do get excited when the empanada or tamale truck rolls around.

      1. I would love it if a decent food truck parked near my office in River North. I stick to Chipotle, Potbelly - maybe Hannah's Bretzel and... it gets old. But I'm also not willing to pay for a plate of food cooked and packaged offsite hours earlier. I hope that Jerk312 does well and encourages additional, high-quality trucks that cook food to order.

        To get a healthy food truck going, you need to be in a high-density area -- ie. the Loop/River North. Unfortunately, a few well-connected business owners lost their damn minds and convinced the city council to pass a horrible bill that over-regulates food trucks.

        9 Replies
        1. re: danimalarkey

          Yes, in the cases of something slightly better than a NYC hot-dog cart, I too would appreciate something a little different sometimes.

          But food trucks can't be compared to Asian night markets. In HK and Tokyo where I've been to many, the atmosphere is like a state fair. The food can be great and yes, stall XYZ makes great ramen or the best ever char shui bao but unless I am walking by and hungry I just don't get the chasing of the truck that seems to be what the nouveau foodie community has been swirling around for a couple years.

          And to the laws we have here, I don't mind it. A line of food trucks with their generators running spewing diesel smoke and noise along with their cooking is nasty. Go to another city where they allow it and again it feels like you're at the fair. Would be better to put more great food courts together like they have in China and Japan.

          1. re: jbontario

            The controversy over food truck laws exists because food trucks are being utilized in a different way today than they have traditionally. It was previously a way to get access to a quick meal in an area that was underserved by convenience restaurants. In Manhattan where land is extremely expensive a food truck/cart makes sense as a way to grab a quick bagel/coffee on the way to the office rather than go a block or two out of your way.

            The modern view of a food truck in Chicago and other areas is that it's a relatively inexpensive way to have a mobile storefront food business. The controversy comes in because this city has relatively few areas that are completely devoid of restaurants/diners but still have enough foot traffic to make a food truck stop viable so food trucks end up going to locations that already have established businesses.

            Although people argue "competition is good" and "let the market choose the winner" it's not that simple at a small scale. A truck pulling up in front of a small restaurant may pull several hundred dollars worth of business away for that day which may make a huge difference in the restaurant owners ability to survive. Repeat that twice a week with different trucks and the result is much, much worse.

            There needs to be a compromise that allow for access to food trucks that doesn't create a disincentive for smaller operators to make a commitment to opening a storefront restaurant.

            1. re: ferret

              The last time I was in DC, I saw 2-3 trucks parked in front of a Cosi. The Cosi was packed. The trucks had healthy lines. Would Cosi have been more crowded had the trucks not been there? No way to tell.

              If I recall, one of the more vocal/oft quoted opponents of a liberal approach to managing food trucks owns Trattoria No. 10. Personally, I am baffled that he would see a food truck as a threat to his brick and mortar operation -- they serve very different audiences. When lunch time rolls around, I do not ask myself, "What will I eat today? A $20 plate of pasta or a $7 order of Jerk chicken wings?"

              1. re: danimalarkey

                It's the one-off, mom and pop places that are likely to suffer and for them a drop of $200-$300 for even a day makes a huge difference. And its also about the lack of predictability so you can adjust to the marketplace.

                1. re: ferret

                  There's a one-off, mom and pop place left in the Loop/River North that offers cheap/affordable & quick lunches to go? Cafecito comes to mind but I otherwise can't think of anything and I would sincerely love to know about other, similar places.

                    1. re: ferret

                      Wait, for realsies? I had no idea.

                      Why would food trucks want to set up outside the Loop/River North? That's where the customers are. Six Corners, sure. Other late night hotspots like around Halsted/Diversey, etc. (and it would be such a shame if people stopped going to Weiner Circle at 2am).

                      1. re: danimalarkey

                        Why? Ask them. Their schedules vary and they can run from the U of C campus in Hyde Park to the Northwestern Hospital area and points West. When Phil Foss was running his Meatyballs trucks he had a regular stop by WTTW/Northeastern University on the NW side. That's really maximizing the food trucks' potential as there isn't a lunch spot for blocks (aside from cafeterias/vending machines).

                        1. re: danimalarkey

                          Why would it be a shame if people stopped going to the Wiener Circle at 2 am? And why do you think that food trucks in the area would keep people from going to Wiener Circle - if that was what they wanted.

                          The current law is almost like saying "We have a restaurant on this block. You can't build another one because customers might go to yours and not ours if they liked it better."

                          Seems to me, in the world of supply and demand, the best options will do well and the others - if they're there only because they're the only game in town - probably don't deserve to stay.

          2. The original comment has been removed
            1. Speaking of night markets:

              That these are happening on a week night is a little odd -- I would expect a weekend night to get much more traffic -- but I'm still pretty curious just the same.

              1 Reply