After a four-hour hearing filled with heated questions and tearful testimony, an expanded mobile food ordinance two years in the making was approved Thursday by the Chicago City Council's License and Consumer Protection Committee.
And while some committee members felt it was an occasion to celebrate, food truck owners said they felt "attacked" and dejected by the process.
They predicted that if the ordinance passes the full City Council in a vote later this month, it could put currently thriving operations out of business in a matter of weeks or months.
"I just feel defeated," said a tearful Amy Le, who owns the Duck N Roll food truck and heads the Illinois Food Truck Association. "We wanted a fair shake, but it seemed like it was already decided before we got here. The most important part is that the public got to hear our stories, so now they will know what they are losing."
Introduced last month by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and seven co-sponsors, the ordinance would allow cooking aboard trucks, longer operational hours and special food truck stands in busy neighborhoods. Last-minute changes Thursday included banning operation between 2 and 5 a.m. rather than allowing 24-hour service and prohibiting operation in vacant lots even with the property owner's permission.
The main objection of food truck advocates is a requirement that the trucks stay 200 feet away from restaurants, except in certain locations. Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago, said the rule gives special protection to restaurants at the expense of trucks.
"I do think the 200-foot rule is unconstitutional and the city is opening itself up to a lawsuit," Kregor said. "And the (institute) will look into it."
Glenn Keefer, who co-owns Keefer's restaurant in River North, said restaurants "carry the tax burden, and so we do deserve a little protection from other businesses and people parking in front of businesses and siphoning off our customers."
But such sentiments do not assure food truck operators who think the changes would come too late. In addition to the 200-foot buffer zone, truck owners object to required GPS tracking systems and $1,000 fines for parking violations.
Manny Hernandez said he was laid off two years ago but got back on his feet by launching Spaceship Tamales, which now employs five people.
"If this passes," he said, "it will kill my chance of opening my own store, and with these rules I will be out of business in a week and a half."
Numerous food truck operators told similar stories of losing or leaving jobs during a bad economy to start their own business and finally feeling like they were getting somewhere.
"I've put everything I have into this, and if this passes this is the end of my livelihood," said Nida Rodriguez of Slide Ride. "I sell $3 sliders, and so a $1,000 fine would wipe me out."
Tiffany Kurtz of Flirty Cupcakes said the ordinance's 10 downtown parking spaces for trucks are insufficient for the 123 licensed trucks that make the majority of their money downtown between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
"You will be putting us in a situation where we can no longer survive by playing by the rules," Kurtz said.
Ald. John Arena, 45th, was the only committee member who voted against the plan, saying he thinks it puts a "noose around the neck of innovators."
While the food trucks have lower overhead costs, so-called brick-and-mortar restaurants have inherent advantages like lucrative liquor sales and indoor seating for diners during inclement weather, Arena said. Yet the proposed ordinance protects restaurants in buildings by placing so many restrictions on the trucks, he said.
"Brick-and-mortars can operate all year round. These guys can't," Arena said.
The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said Thursday that the ordinance properly balanced competing interests.
"This ordinance is a workable compromise that provides food trucks with completely new and expanded opportunities to operate," the agency said in a statement.
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.