Chicago's Food Truck Phenomenon:
Personal Interaction Draws Chicago area fans
By Melanie Adcock
When you purchase food from a food truck in Chicago you can rest assured you won't get wilted lettuce on a hastily made sandwich. Instead you're going to get the best of the best, a talented foodie or experienced chef with the charm of a personal touch. As the Chicago food truck phenomenon expands Chicagoans ask what is the new draw to food trucks? The big answer is: fans love the conversation and interaction. Oh, and the food is darned good, too! In most successful Chicago restaurants owners and chefs are on the floor interacting with customers, but food trucks are giving consumers a double dose of one-on-one attention which keeps fans coming back for more. The fun of pursuing food trucks on sites like Foursquare and Twitter help build an excitement and community around arrival times of the trucks all over the city limits.
I went to Ethyl's Beer & Wine Dive (324 S. Racine) parking lot recently to check out the scene where every Thursday night they host an ongoing Truckin' Thursdays event, displaying new food trucks in Chicago sporting hip branding and gourmet food delivered with a warm smile and conversation. The event's atmosphere of coolness is amplified by the bold letters on the side of 5411 Empanadas' truck: "This truck may look slow to you but we're actually pretty fast so if you're thinking of following us we recommend doing it on Twitter @5411empanadas" and the sign on the Sweet Ride truck says: "Warning this food truck may cause you to cheat on your diet!" Geared toward the foodie ingrained in nearly every Chicagoan amazing food like the Woopie Pies I saw offered by Sweet Ride, the slow roasted pork with coconut fries and hot dogs with delectable grill marks from Wagu Wagon and Slide Ride's gourmet mini slider burger sandwiches did not disappoint. They are but a fraction of the examples of Chicago's growing new food truck industry of viable respectable cuisine.
What do fans think?
Outside of Ethyl's a woman from Naperville told me the food trucks parked there every week were a perfect way for her to grab something to eat on her way home. As we were talking I met Drew Wasserman who was there handing out posters of a food truck infographic he designed. He knew tons about Chicago's food truck landscape can only be described as a zealous fan.
Bitten by the craze, another woman said she tried food trucks in New York but found the Chicago food trucks are even better. By fluke she found an online listing of local food trucks and immediately loved the fresh food on trucks with kitchens on board. She says she tries to chase them whenever she's downtown and goes on to compliment the uniqueness of the tasty options claiming food trucks allow consumers to try different things at competitive prices with bigger serving sizes. She continues by saying,
"The owners are interesting, nice, and interactive. They actually talk to you. It's very personal and it's good food. The owners and cooks put in long days just like chefs at finer restaurants because they start cooking early in the morning, they do lunch and evening events and festivals all summer long. They are foodies just like us and they are so enthusiastic about what they do."
Another enthusiast had respect for food trucks because they pay parking meters just like we do. He has fun following them on Twitter, loves that they thank their customers and says when they tweet about each other it is nice for the community. He sees trucks at Willis Tower, Aon, Wagon Wednesdays on Fulton Market, Loyola University and University of Chicago and says they park together in these areas when they can. He enjoys the food and interaction, but realizes food trucks downtown are controversial because the restaurants pay premium rents. He thinks food trucks will inspire people downtown in winter to get out of their offices and feels they can be an advantage in any season because it gives people another choice.
Food Truck Owners Speak Out:
Inside every food truck there is a fantastic story of what got them started showing the passion and drive behind what makes this exciting trend tick. Wagu Wagon got started when Aaron Crumbaugh returned to Chicago after living in California for five years and saw there were no food trucks in Chicago due to constricting laws. He helped start a food truck for another company then designed his own. He approached Raphael Lopez who was at the time the executive chef at Schubas and asked him to collaborate. They spent months on concept development and kitchen design and in May of this year bought the food truck. After efforts with builders, sound installation, and painting the outside of the truck they officially launched in August at the Time Out! Chicago Food Truck Social. Nida Rodriguez, owner of Slide Ride, came from corporate finance but always liked to cook. She got started in June of this year after studying the food truck movement in L.A. It was a year in the making prior to her launch but it is now paying her bills, she says. She adds, it's a difficult road but if you are dedicated to it it is worth it. Nicholas Ibarzabal from 5411 Empanadas along with his other two business partners who all hail from Argentina added a food truck to their catering business in February of this year. Empanadas are like burgers back where they're from and they wanted to give people a way to get them here in Chicago. Another truck was famous from the start, Sweet Ride http://www.sweetridechi.com/, was a food truck originally featured on The Apprentice and was later purchased by current owner, Lupita Kuri.
In these tough economic times it is hopeful and inspirational to foodies and entrepreneurs alike hear the stories behind the take off of these fledgling businesses and watch them succeed. Donnie Kruse, Ethyl's founder, has set out to encourage the food truck scene to flourish. He became a food truck fan four years ago when he saw his girlfriend create a business plan for a food truck and saw food trucks in his travels outside of the Midwest. He saw they were getting shooed away from downtown Chicago and decided to use his parking lot as a solution to lend support to new start up food trucks. Though most restaurants would scoff at the idea of letting food trucks near their establishment, it seems Donnie's welcoming attitude has the making of a trend. Raphael Lopez http://chicago.eater.com/tags/raphael-lopez from Wagu Wagon says they like the idea of a bar like Ethyl's teaming up with food trucks to support the community and attract customers. He says there are other places like Long Room http://longroomchicago.com/ over on Irving Park and Ashland who want to do the same thing.
The location at Ethyl's seemed to be working out great for Nicholas Ibarzabal who's friendly chit chat with customers recommending empanadas was coupled with the clinking sound of change being made. I caught glimpses of family pictures inside his truck and saw a business card from the tech start up Dabble, showing signs of networking and outreach with high tech companies and local entrepreneurs. Nadia Sherris, working in Sweet Ride truck that night, said the food trucks help each other out, there's lots of spirit and everyone knows everyone. She also added the vibe at Ethyl's reminds her of Zietgeist in San Francisco and mentioned the community is brought even closer because of Kitchen Chicago, a commercial kitchen that hosts many local food trucks giving them space to prepare their savory dishes.
The process of food preparation is one of many challenges for food trucks in Chicago due to the limiting legislation in the city. 5411 Empanadas bakes and prepackages their empanadas using Kitchen Chicago and they use a heated storage container on their truck called a proofer to keep the food toasty. They plan to get an oven on their truck when the laws change. Aaron Crumbaugh of Wagu Wagon says The Chicago laws have been tough for them. They are one of the first food trucks in Chicago to get out there with a kitchen and grill on board but because of the laws are limited to parking on private lots. Though they say they might be a little too ahead of the curve right now, once the laws in Chicago change, it will be hard for some trucks who have baked foods to transition into ready to make on board food. It might be back to the drawing board for some when the changes take effect. Wagu Wagon keeps evolving their menu and feel solid about their success as opportunities trickle in for catering every time they get out there and cook.
Speaking of getting out there, not many people want to go outside in the Chicago winters! When asked how they will deal with this challenge in their business Wagu Wagon joked that they wouldn't need their air conditioner in their truck over the coming months but they clearly have an advantage with the warmth of their on board kitchen and say it's no different from working in a real kitchen at a real restaurant. In the months of January and February however they plan to take the truck into the shop to get it ready for next summer which they think will be a blockbuster for their business. Luckily 5411 Empanadas started their catering business before launching a food truck and plan to focus on that end of their business during the winter time. They will also do more small daily stops rather than one big stop, plus step up their deliveries. Though on a great weather day a food truck like 5411 Empanadas will sell for 3 hours straight, during the rough winter months ahead every private holiday party and catering opportunity will contribute toward keeping all of Chicago's food trucks afloat.
With all of these challenges it's easy to wonder if it's even worth it? While Slide Ride boasts over 3500 Twitter followers and 5411 Empanadas claims three people lined up waiting for them before they get there as a result of tweeting their location, questions remain whether food trucks in Chicago are profitable and will they persist? Nadia Sherris from Sweet Ride says the parking attendants are especially tough on food trucks even though they have business licenses and they pay meters just like everyone else. Slide Ride was quick to point out food trucks can't park within 200 feet of a restaurant and are only allowed to serve between 10 am and 10 pm making things more difficult and challenging for them. Drew Wasserman pointed out in his recent article published along with his infographic a few key issues that are challenging for food trucks:
* "There has been a stringent 20 year ban on all food manufacturing from a motorized vehicle while on city property.
* Local restaurants maintain political pressure to keep the ban in effect.
* Food Trucks must conform to many city health codes, such as that a front driver section must be separate from the back food preparation area.
* All food must be packaged separately and individually, which can be a tall order in the case of a large batch of cupcakes for example."
Wagu Wagon says it's easy to be profitable, but it will take them awhile to pay back debt. They have been approached for holiday season parties and they think next year will be great for them. 5411 Empanadas says it's a lot of work, but fun. Most everyone else I spoke with concurs that there are a lot of long hours involved but they are happy with their success. Meanwhile fans are crazy about the entire delicious experience.