The Corner

How Chef Glosses Over All the Ways Cities Persecute Food Trucks

Food trucks are finally getting their own movie — one that’s heavy on comedy, but light on reality.    

Chef, a new comedy that premiered this past weekend, features a strong lineup of Hollywood A-List stars, including Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey, Jr., Chef  succeeds as a celebration of food-truck entrepreneurship, but it also glosses over — or outright ignores — the struggles that food-truck owners face.

Jon Favreau, who also wrote and directed the film, plays Carl Casper, a chef at a prestigious restaurant in Los Angeles. After he retaliates against a critic over a scathing review, Carl loses his job. To keep working as a cook, Carl returns to his hometown of Miami, where he buys and fixes a beat-up food truck.

With the help of his son and his line cook, the three drive back to L.A., visiting food-truck hot spots like Austin and New Orleans along the way. Amidst the jokes are close-ups of tantalizing dishes, making Chef what is probably the first road-trip/buddy-comedy/food-porn movie.

The movie gets quite a bit right about working in the food-truck industry. Like many vendors, Carl’s son uses social media to attract customers, an absolute necessity to keep their fans informed. Chef also details the time and dedication needed to run a food truck successfully, with the leads pulling long hours to prepare and perfect their Cuban sandwiches.

But the movie diverges sharply from reality by giving scant attention to the No. 1 obstacle faced by many food-truck operators: restrictive and anti-competitive laws that, all too often, drive them out of business.

Take Greg Burke and Kristin Casper (no relation to the fictitious Carl). Like Carl in Chef, Greg and Kristin lost their jobs and opened a food truck in Chicago, the Schnitzel King. But the city, goaded by a handful of politically connected restaurateurs who don’t want the competition, passed a law that makes it extremely difficult to find places to vend downtown.

Chicago bans food trucks from selling within 200 feet of any restaurant, coffee shop, or convenience store. The problem is that there is some kind of food establishment on nearly every corner. Even crazier, the city is mandating all food trucks install GPS tracking devices so that the city can monitor vendors and enforce the 200-foot proximity ban.

Greg and Kristin joined a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public-interest law firm for entrepreneurs, and sued Chicago in November 2012. But unable to vend where they wanted at the time, Greg and Kristin were forced to shut down and end the Schnitzel King’s reign last month. (They will continue their legal fight to save other food-trucks from suffering the same fate.)

Nor are these laws confined to Chicago. Out of America’s 50 largest cities, 20 — including San Francisco, San Antonio, Baltimore, Denver and Memphis — ban food trucks from selling near brick-and-mortar restaurants.

The Miami area, where Carl buys his food truck, also makes life nearly impossible for these entrepreneurs. Aside from special events and a tiny number of exempted locations, food trucks are completely banned. Unlike other cities, food trucks can’t vend from on-street parking spaces or at metered and unmetered spaces.

Meanwhile, in Chef, the closest Carl gets to any trouble with the law is a scene in Miami Beach where a cop orders him to relocate his truck. But when he recognizes Carl from an infamous Twitter meltdown, the cop lets him vend. Of course, food-truck owners who aren’t celebrities don’t have that option.

Conversely, while Chef spotlights Austin, L.A., and New Orleans for their vibrant street-food scenes, it doesn’t show why food trucks are thriving there. Simply put, Austin and Los Angeles have generally resisted the urge to restrict food trucks from competing with restaurants. Last summer, New Orleans followed those two cities’ example by repealing an anti-competitive law that banned food trucks from selling within 600 feet of restaurants. Had Carl brought his food truck into the Crescent City before then, he would have probably had a hard time finding a parking spot.

Charlie Chaplin once said that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but comedy in long-shot.” Chef proves him right: It stays funny by keeping its distance from the legal obstacles that can turn running a food truck into a real downer.

— Nick Sibilla and Garrett Atherton work at the Institute for Justice, which advocates nationwide for food-truck freedom.


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