Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Food Trucks, False Facts, & Fair Play

This week, the Chicago City Council passed new regulations for the hundreds of food trucks that shuttle about serving tasty offerings to busy workers and curious passerbys. The bureaucracy of the city, along with many of the major media outlets, is claiming this to be a step forward for the city, bolstering the city's position as a progressive supporter of innovative entrepreneurs. I had the opportunity to speak with several food truck owners this week, who painted a much more grim picture of the landscape.

Without going into a great deal of nuance (the main tenets of this legislation have been beaten to death by every major news organization in the city), the law essentially allows the trucks to cook their food on the vehicle, a departure from the previous mandate, which restricted the mobile restaurants to servings morsels already prepared in an established kitchen. This has been hailed as the white horse of this law, saving the food trucks and embracing the burgeoning segment of food service as a welcome addition to our culture. But the law also has some catches - strings that are not only attached, but may serve as a noose to this new trend in the Windy City.

Due in large part to the influence of "brick-and-mortar" restaurants, this new legislation also states that any food truck cannot park and sell their wares within two hundred feet of an established restaurant. This mandate is to be enforced through the use of GPS tracking on the trucks, and non-compliance could result in a fine that is triple that of the average health code violation. At first, this may not seem like such an unreasonable request, but when considering the sheer density of restaurants in the Chicago Loop, perhaps this "two hundred foot" rule is a bit restrictive. Combine this distance mandate with the fact that the majority of these trucks earn their livelihood from the businessmen and women in the heart of the city, and this new Food Truck legislation is clearly not the boon it was touted to be.

According to several owners of these restaurants on wheels, the culprit behind this stagnant law is primarily the restaurant industry, fearful of the encroaching food trucks who will evidently steal their customers, lower the quality of food in the city, and probably poison large swaths of citizens. But if other major markets are any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. In looking to Los Angeles and New York it is clear that food trucks add innovation, spontaneity, and style to the dining experience of the metropolitan area to which they serve. If static stores fear food trucks, they must not understand the role that a food truck serves - a quick service experience, with full service flavor. The food truck is not going to take customers away from a well manicured Asian-Fusion restaurant, unless that restaurant failed to live up to the standards that it's patrons desired. Conversely, the presence of a food truck would require a sub-par restaurant to improve in order to compete with the street-side fare that was offered. When competition is present, all participating businesses prosper. If they choose not to innovate, they cease to be.

This law represents a fear of competition and therefore an inability to even show up to the conversation. Rather than fight the fair fight, existing restaurants are using their clout with city aldermen to kill their competitors before they can lace up their gloves. This defensive maneuver is sad, as it shows a clear lack of confidence in the product which the established stores produce.

This argument can be seen throughout history. The incumbent, satisfied with the status quo, grows soft and complacent. While established restaurants are always competing against one another for patrons, the industry seems to be lax in it's willingness to compete on a level playing field with it's new competitors on wheels.

It is examples such as this that make me realize that I must always be fresh and ready to innovate. The climb to success is fraught with struggle and, no matter what profession or craft you are in, becoming a leader in your industry means rebuilding and finding your own unique approach. But once the summit is reached, stagnation is detrimental. The beer industry in this country is a prime example.

Try to name the newest type of beer put out by Budweiser or Miller Brewing Company. Bud Light Lime? Miller 64? Neither has come out with a truly original product since they introduced Miller Lite and Bud Light in the sixties and eighties, respectively. Since then, it's merely been variations on a watered-down theme. If they want to diversify, they buy a microbrewery rather than develop a new recipe. Maintaining a monopolistic hold on the market is very time consuming - there is little time for creating new products.

This is the self-consuming cycle of creativity. It is the punk rocker who rails against the establishment while being signed to a major label. It is the free-spirited artist who is given a prestigious commission by an oil tycoon. The serious actor who takes the first role in a summer teen rom-com that is offered to them. It is the plot to Rocky III.

So while we are still the little guy, the rising contender, we know that we need to do something to separate ourselves from the establishment. This is the current plight of the food trucks in Chicago - to rise above and prove their worth to a skeptical food industry and a brainwashed city council. Someday these mobile restaurantuers will become mainstream. When that day comes, I hope that they remember where they were in 2012, fighting for their right to bring innovative treats to the Windy City streets - and I hope they will continue to think outside the box.


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