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Sen. Mark Kirk Making a Federal Issue Out of Chicago's Food Truck Restrictions

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U.S. Senator made a visit to the Chicago Food Truck Festival on Saturday.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk
Ashok Selvam
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois wants Chicago lawmakers to lift restrictions on food trucks to allow them to better prosper. The Senator made a visit on Saturday to the Chicago Food Truck Fest and chatted with truck owners. He's also pushing a new federal law that he says will help these small-business owners.

Why does Kirk care care? He said food truck issues are ignored. Kirk feels lifting restrictions, such as making licensing easier and allowing trucks to dock without a time limit, would increase jobs and better serve his constituency. He even said he wrote a memo to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asking him to work on it.

"I think this is an easy win for [Emanuel] to lighten up on the police giving out tickets to food trucks," Kirk said during a Saturday interview. "It means less work for the police, more focus on crime and everything here."

The Senator compared Chicago's food truck scene to those in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Orlando and Miami, saying Chicago lags behind, as those other markets are more food-truck friendly. Kirk's team put together a chart (see below).

kirk food truck chart

Kirk was quick to say he was careful to get too involved in state and local matters, saying he's already busy with a bevy issues on the federal level. For example, while he touted food trucks as a way to make Chicago more attractive to tourists, he said he was unaware of the happy hour bill awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner's attention. The measure would legalize happy hour drink specials, something that's been banned since 1989 in Illinois.

As for Kirk's bill in Washington, it would require federal agencies to regularly reviews regulations placed on small businesses — such as food trucks — and evaluate to fiscal impact and need for the rule. The bill was introduced in March.

So what else can a U.S. Senator do to help food trucks? Rich Levy, owner of the Haute Sausage truck, suggested a variety of tax credits, saying it would help attract potential investors into the food market space. Specifically if the government could turn W-2 forms into tax credits for investors: "That would be like pouring lighter fluid on the charcoal grill in terms of the economy," Levy said.

Also, in a bit of a surprise, Levy said blame for the restrictive food policies shouldn't be focused on the Illinois Restaurant Association. Owners of brick and mortar restaurants have traditionally seen food trucks as a threat to their business, with a lower overhead and not subject to the same licensing. That's something Kirk also alluded to while interviewed. Even the city has reversed course with legislation that better benefits food trucks: "The big fail is that there's 36 food truck zones and only three of them are being used," Levy said.

Food trucks can also be a boon for food deserts, poorer areas where there aren't grocery stores or many restaurants. There aren't any ways for lawmakers to regulate food tricks in terms of servicing this areas, but Levy noted that the site of Saturday's event in the South Loop could be considered one of those under-served communities.