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Chicago’s Food Truck Laws Are Legal, Judge Rules

The decision in the parking restriction lawsuit goes against food trucks

Food truck owner Laura Pekarik reacts at Daley Center to a Cook County judge’s ruling.
Food truck owner Laura Pekarik reacts at Daley Center to a Cook County judge’s ruling.
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.

In a defeat for Chicago’s food trucks, a Cook County judge today upheld that a battery of city laws regulating the industry—including those that mandate where trucks can park downtown—are legal and constitutional. The summary judgement comes after a four-year legal battle after a government watchdog filed a lawsuit against the city back in 2012.

Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos concluded that the city had the right to enforce the 200-foot rule, a restriction city lawmakers approved in 1991. The rule prevents trucks from parking within 200 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant. The judge found the city had a right to reduce sidewalk congestion and that they could mandate trucks to carry a GPS to track location. The city also was right to protect the rights of traditional restaurants, according the judge.

Demacopoulos called the lawsuit a battle between traditional restaurants and the "young rising pop star of the food truck." Plaintiff Laura Pekarik, owner of Cupcakes for Courage, a suburban food truck, was the face of lawsuit. Her attorneys were from the Institute of Justice, a watchdog opposing government regulations. They plan on appealing the decision.

However, the judge called the city out saying that the parking laws do not in any way drive trucks to food deserts. The parking restrictions do not force trucks toward under served areas, as owners are looking for customers with disposable incomes.

Chicago’s food truck laws have been notoriously strict, and many feel they’ve stunted the industry’s growth, putting it behind other cities’ food truck scenes. Lawyer Robert Frommer, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, called Chicago’s food truck scene "anemic" in comparison to New York and Los Angeles. Even outgoing Sen. Mark Kirk believed the laws needed to be reworked to help businesses and he took shots at Mayor Rahm Emanuel over the issue.

Food truck owners openly acknowledge that finding a good parking space can make or break business in an already unfriendly business environment. Back in 2011, Big Star’s food truck famously failed a food inspection due to the presence of a cutting board. Food preparation of any kind—even using a knife to slice ingredients—was illegal for food trucks. That city law has since been relaxed.

The issue came up again over the summer after an ABC Chicago/Sun-Times report that the city was ignoring many parking violations and failing to issue fines to food trucks. The so-called scandal villainized food trucks, many of them already struggling. The owners of the Döner Men truck are opening a restaurant, and they’ve talked about how once the restaurant opens, they won’t miss the sometimes desperate hunt to find a parking spot. That’s a feeling many operators share.

How will this affect food trucks laws? Pekarik said she wanted to operate her truck more in the city, but the ruling stymies those plans. She wasn't too surprised by the decision, which her legal team has 30 days to appeal.