By Brett McNeil
A couple weeks ago I celebrated another middle-age birthday watching the White Sox lose badly and drinking maybe one too many draft beers from the Go Go Sox Grille. The next day, clearing my foggy head, I went for a walk through downtown Oak Park and came upon a food truck parked in the municipal lot off North Boulevard right at Marion Street.
I wasn't firing on every single cylinder, I'll admit it, but this was a strange and curious visage: a food truck slinging Cajun fare in a business district full of restaurants.
This is the kind of thing that causes restaurant associations to punch through their chef's hats, chambers of commerce to toss off their suit jackets and that, several years ago, prompted Chicago officials to just outright ban food trucks from operating within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Not that Oak Park takes any cues from Chicago but, recognizing the city's rules as an established benchmark, the Cajun truck definitely seemed to be encroaching on the 200-foot rule, or at least the spirit of the 200-foot rule. A reasonably athletic sixth-grader could have hit at least three, maybe four, Oak Park restaurants with a Nerf football from where the food truck was parked.
Turns out, the truck was part of an anniversary celebration by Beer Shop and it had visited the village at least once before at the store's invitation. Another, different food truck is coming this weekend for a craft beer festival, again at Beer Shop's beckoning.
Both vehicles hail from Chicago. Neither have peddlers licenses in Oak Park, which apparently they're supposed to possess in order to sell food to hungry locals. I share those facts, because I learned them while asking about food trucks in downtown Oak Park.
I should also share another fact: Nobody's complaining about the food trucks. So says the village communications director, so says the Downtown Oak Park organization and so says Beer Shop owner Tony Compaglia.
Which at least means Oak Park really is different than Chicago.
But there's a little more to it.
Beer Shop's Compaglia last year partnered with the guys from Oak Park's Carnivore, operators of the village-licensed Ministry of Sandwiches food truck, to occasionally set up outside the North Boulevard beer store.
According to DTOP Marketing Director Shanon Williams, Compaglia approached the downtown group for support of the idea and, given the involvement of another Oak Park business, he got it.
It was good enough while it lasted, but the Beer Shop/Ministry of Sandwiches pairing never quite took off, according to Brad Knaube of Carnivore and principal operator of its food truck, and the last time the Sandwich Ministry preached outside Beer Shop was sometime last summer or fall. That part's a little fuzzy.
This year, the Chicago-based Cajun truck has been out twice, and Saturday's visit will mark a third appearance by a foreign food truck in downtown Oak Park. Not exactly a regular thing but also not the deal DTOP thought they were backing.
"That's news to us," DTOP's Williams said about the Chicago trucks. "We OK'd him to have the Carnivore truck, and that is the only truck we said we would be OK with."
"We do not support food trucks down in our districts," she said. "It's in direct competition with our restaurants."
Compaglia said he met last year with DTOP and discussed the Carnivore truck.
"If I remember correctly, the conversation we did have was in the context of Carnivore; that's who we were working with at the time," he said. Compaglia said he has "not since had a conversation" with DTOP regarding other food trucks.
"We're not looking to create competition between local business and food trucks," Compaglia said. "Rather, we're trying to provide something, on a few occasions a year, that our customers have told us they appreciate."
"No one has come to me and said this is creating a conflict," he said.
Village spokesman David Powers concurred. "It just hasn't risen as a major issue.
If [downtown businesses] really had a concern we would have heard about it," he said.
Fair enough. And bully for the village in apparently not rushing in with a steering committee or ticket book.
But I sense at least a few downtown restaurants might join their marketing association in wondering why out-of-town food trucks are operating outside their front doors.
Prairie Bread Kitchen owner Doran Payne, whose store is definitely within Nerf football range of the food truck parking spot, said he thought the trucks this summer were from Carnivore and was surprised to learn they were not.
"It's certainly no benefit," he said. "Especially if it's coming from Chicago."
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