Food carts in Chicago

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Chicago-specific post. I’ll spare you any discussion of the mayoral election or the performance of our sports teams, and talk about a controversy that’s been building for a while – street food carts in Chicago.

What’s the big deal? Well, a lot of people want food carts. Many entrepreneurs and restauranteurs would love to have a food cart.

But just as many people have concerns and objections. They worry about the safety of food prepared on carts, about the competition for space between dueling cart owners, about the mobile kitchens stealing business from existing brick and mortar restaurants.

Carts on Library Mall (near University of Wisconsin) in Madison

And those are all valid concerns, to be sure. Many true “food carts” in the city now are illegal and are cooking food on the premises, which isn’t permitted. That food isn’t regulated, and neither are the people running them. No one is checking whether food is being refrigerated or heated at the appropriate temperatures, which can result in serious health issues.

There are a limited number of regulated food carts in the city right now, but they are featuring food that was prepared in a regulated restaurant or shop and is being sold cold or at room temperature.

I’ve heard lots of pros and cons, but few people have mentioned my old hometown of Madison, Wisconsin when they talk about this issue. They should, because Madison has one of the best organized, best run, and plain yummiest selection of food carts. And somehow, no one has died and people have made money. Imagine!

What Madison does that works well:

Carts are assigned spots. The whole will-someone-poach-my-spot issue never comes into play. (Then again, this is a town that seems to always be in the midst of a dibs war, so who knows if other cart owners would respect someone’s spot?) They’re mainly in public areas near the state capitol and the university.

Carts are generally limited in the hours they sell food. Most of the carts were open during the day and during weekdays. And many of them were within 500 feet of existing restaurants. But they didn’t seem to poach each other’s business. In fact, the concentration of healthy, delicious food brings more people to that area. The only thing carts competed with in Madison – and affected – was fast food. Because who wants to go to stale ol’ Subway if a tasty taco cart or falafel wagon is nearby?

Hey, look: A cart for Illinois residents! (FIB = notorious acronym that Skonnies use to describe people from Illinois.)

There are 40 to 50 carts in the downtown Madison area, and they’re some of the most popular places to go.

But Madison is a quarter of a million people. Could it work in a city of three million plus?

Sure. There would need to be adjustments. Assigning spaces in public areas would be a start, but allowing some carts to be mobile and stop in several areas – as some of the current carts do (hello, cupcake wagon) should be allowed.

Madison is a town of mostly small business owners, and Chicago’s carts should be populated to talented local chefs and bakers making great food with sustainable materials. We shouldn’t have giant Lettuce Entertain You carts all over Chicago. (They can park that one at Navy Pier.)

There would have to be a real effort to regulate carts not just in the Loop but everywhere. And that would require a very multicultural approach to this project, since so many neighborhoods have their own cultural culinary strengths. Neighborhood organizations should be able to decide where carts can sell, so it doesn’t impact their homes, neighborhoods or businesses.

I think the weakest part of this idea is not the carts themselves, but the ability of the city government to inspect and regulate them. They barely sustain the restaurant inspections they’re required to do now, and they’ve shown a lack of respect in the past for new food communities and entrepreneurs (they’ve tossed out months of work in raw food establishments).

I really hope Chicago can pull it together, though. Food carts are a great experience, a great combination of old and new ideas.

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