When Laura Pekarik launched her business, Courageous Cupcakes, in 2011, she had no idea how much courage it would take.
She started with a single food truck – she says there were about six others rolling through the streets of Chicago at the time – and it was not uncommon for brick-and-mortar restaurant owners to call the cops on her.
“We were pioneers of the industry,” she said in a recent interview with Wednesday Journal. “We would develop little areas like the Aon Center, where people were at and they wanted to go and eat, and it was kind of far for other people to go there.
“We would band together in park areas until, you know, the cops came and said, ‘You are creating a hazard to public health, and you need to leave here.’”
About a year later, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance requiring food trucks to install GPS tracking devices at their own expense, so the competition – or anyone else – could see the history of their routes.
The ordinance also prevented the mobile restaurants from parking at any location for more than two hours and required them to stay at least 200 feet away from any business that sells food – even convenience stores. The food truck owners also faced fines of up to $2,000 for violating the 200-foot rule.
Pekarik, who opened her second brick-and-mortar store, Courageous Bakery, 736 Lake St., about a year ago in Oak Park – her first was in Elmhurst in 2012 – filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the tracking devices violate her constitutional right against unreasonable searches and the 200-foot rule favors brick-and-mortar operations over those on four wheels.
The city has won in two court battles, so far, but the case will soon go before the Illinois Supreme Court.
Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Law, declined to talk with a reporter about the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, but he issued this statement via email:
“While we cannot comment on the pending litigation, Chicago’s food truck ordinance has already withstood the scrutiny of two courts. More importantly, the regulations strike the right balance between the interests of food trucks and restaurants and create a healthy environment in which both can flourish.”
Robert Frommer, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, who is representing Pekarik in the case, said the city regulations have had a crippling effect on the food truck industry. He noted that the case originally was brought by Pekarik and Casper and Greg Burke, owners of the Schnitzel King food truck.
“One of my original plaintiffs in the case … eventually went out of business,” he said.
He said the 200-foot rule precludes food trucks from roughly 97 percent of the downtown Chicago area.
“Politically connected businesses should not be able to use the government to shut out the competition and restrict consumers’ choices,” Frommer, who heads the institute’s National Street Vending Initiative, said in a press release. “The Illinois Supreme Court has an opportunity to strike down protectionism and stand up for the freedom of food truck owners to earn a living.”
Frommer said in a telephone interview that the issue is all about competition.
“When you let competition work, you will see a flourishing food truck industry and a flourishing restaurant industry,” he said.
Frommer said he believes the case will likely be heard by the Supreme Court near the end of the year or sometime in 2019. He said he’s represented food truck vendors across the country where onerous ordinances have effectively shut out the competition.
“If you want to attract more customers, then step up your game,” he said. “You shouldn’t be going to city hall to outlaw the competition.”