Tamale-Spaceship chicago food truckCHICAGO, IL – In Chicago’s nascent food truck scene, Manny Hernandez, 41, is as close to a grizzled veteran as it gets.

His Tamale Spaceship, launched in January 2011, was the third truck in the city. After a year of hustling up to twelve hours a day, he pushed the business into the black. The Tamale Spaceship has been named best food truck in the city by the Chicago Reader and Chicago Magazine. More than 70 percent of his customers are regulars.

On the face of it, Hernandez, a former manager at Adobo Grill, embodies the account spun by the city and optimistic foodies, both of whom have advanced a millenarian vision in which independent-minded restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, finally unshackled, will change the way we eat. New city regulations passed last July were touted as the path to a new era of Chicago street food, spawning a narrative of mobile businesses profitably prowling the streetscape. When the City announced in April that food trucks would be making their first appearance at the Taste of Chicago, Mayor Emanuel said in a press release, “The food truck industry continues to build in strength and numbers, and my administration is committed to creating the conditions and opportunities that will allow this industry to thrive.”

Somebody forgot to tell Hernandez. “It’s a very tough business,” he says. “If you have a day job, don’t do this.”

Of course, every business is tough. But in the hand-to-hand combat of the food industry, truck owners like Hernandez are fighting an uphill battle.

Competitive pressure from fast-food joints effectively caps prices. Chicago winters force many operators to close for a full season; those who stay open see business cut in half. Trucks must also contend with some of the country’s highest gas prices, a diffuse population and the challenge of competing against a vibrant and powerful brick-and-mortar food industry.

“Because of the regulations and the price pressures,

[food trucks’] profit margins don’t warrant them being able to stay in business.,” says Bonnie Riggs, an analyst at Rosemont-based market researcher NPD Group. “They can’t make a living on it.”

Making it worse, some say the legislation that took effect nearly a year ago, touted by City Hall as a boon to the trucks, falls short of its intended mark.

“Chicago still has some of the most restrictive food truck laws in the country,” says Richard Myrick, editor in chief of Berwyn-based Mobile Cuisine, an online trade magazine. “Because it’s such a large restaurant city, you’ve got a lot of large restaurant voices and politicians listen to them.”

The issue has spiked blood pressure on both sides. Prominent restaurant owners say they’ve received hate mail from food truck advocates, while truck owners claim that some aldermen are in the pocket of the Illinois Restaurant Association, the trade group that represents brick-and-mortar eateries.

Find the entire article by Deborah Cohen at Chicago Grid <here>