“I don’t know if some of them are dudes or ladies or dudes that just look like ladies. But I do know that they love my rib tips.”
That’s Troy Marcus Johnson, doing what he does best, working as a one-man food task force inside his food truck called Chicago All Fired Up. This fully equipped kitchen on wheels cruises to various spots around the city including the spot in front of Green Dolphin Street – luring the sloshed and sassy with his juicy spiced shrimp, crispy chicken wings and, yes, those applewood-smoked rib tips. On Monday nights he hits the legendary Boom Boom Room, where lycra and lipstick know no gender and color lines are as blurred as most partygoers’ vision. No matter the clientele, the food is always the same: good! At 45 with a wife and two kids, money is the motivator. But how Johnson goes about it is what truly sets him apart. In April of 2009, Chicago All Fired Up launched as the city’s only true food truck, right in line with the trend sweeping the nation.
But what about the trucks in Humboldt Park? Or the lunch wagons downtown?
Those are more like rolling heat lamps than food trucks, but they are all that is legally allowed under Chicago’s strict regulations. The way the books read, a truck owner has to prepare its food in a licensed facility, package that food, load it onto a truck, and either keep it warm or cold until it’s sold.
What Johnson is doing with Chicago All Fired Up is cooking food to order inside his truck – a massive retired fire truck outfitted with everything a licensed restaurant would have including a three-compartment sink with fresh water, a range, hood exhaust, fryer, refrigerator and freezer. How he got this beast street legal could be chalked up to dumb luck, but Johnson prefers to call it a blessing.
“Last year (2009) after I built the truck, a health inspector came out to Miss Minnie’s, the restaurant I bought in 2005, for a routine inspection and saw the truck and asked what it was,” Johnson explains. “I showed it to her and she didn’t know how to inspect it, so she called her supervisor who told her to inspect it just like a restaurant. So I passed the health inspection and had my certificate of sanitation, and she told me to take that to the city and pay $285 for a mobile-food-vendor license. That was it.”
Sounds simple, right? But when asked about the legitimacy of this process, Efrat Stein, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Licensing, refused to comment about Johnson’s particular case or how he was apparently able to sidestep the red tape. “I will say though, on the record, that the way the municipal code stands, no mobile food vendor should be preparing food on-site,” Stein says. Regardless, the health inspector who gave Chicago All Fired Up the green light licensed the truck as a restaurant, and Johnson plans to continue operating it that way.
The dream of mobile food trucks operating on the streets of Chicago took a big step toward reality back in July of this year, when Alderman Scott Waguespack, 32nd, and Alderman Vi Daley, 43rd, introduced a food truck ordinance during Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting. The ordinance was immediately sent to committee, to get the green light for full council consideration at a later date.
“It’s the first step among many more steps,” says Matt Maroni, the chef who has been the driving force behind the food-truck movement. It was Maroni who drafted a model food-truck ordinance by examining existing ordinances in Los Angeles and other cities. Maroni also credited the city’s law department’s “huge help” in “cleaning up the language” so it conforms to other Chicago licensing ordinances.
The ordinance covers the usual health and safety issues, licensing fees and so forth. It also specifically bans food trucks (mobile food facilities, the ordinance calls them) from the “medical center district” west of Ashland Avenue, and gives the city council the ability to create additional prohibited districts as the need arises. Further, mobile food facilities may not park within 100 feet of a food establishment (without the business owner’s permission) or within 200 feet of a food establishment offering a similar service (no fair pulling your hot dog wagon alongside an existing hot dog shop).
And so it begins….
You may have seen an influx of mobile food facilities lately and this past summer has especially seen an increased interest in the business. David Wojtonik, owner of Simple Sandwich says the more the merrier. “The way I see it, the more trucks, the better. I feel like food trucks might need to hit a critical mass before the public begins taking it seriously—there’s a huge advantage to having more of us in the game,” says Wojtonik.
And it seems like everyone is looking to get into the game. “I’ve heard rumors of a macaroni and cheese truck, and I think the guys over at 5411 Empanadas, who work out of Kitchen Chicago, have already applied for their license,” says Wojtonik. “I’ve also heard that Rick Bayless was looking to get a taco truck off the ground. Hopefully we’ll see 10, 20, 30 more trucks out there in the next few years.”
But not everyone is happy….
Chicago restaurant owners are mobilizing to block City Hall from creating an “unlevel playing field” for their brick-and-mortar businesses — by legalizing mobile food facilities with cooking on the premises. “We spent almost $9 million on two restaurants. It’s unfair to people who invested so much to allow someone who has a minimal investment in a truck . . . to pull up 200 feet from our door,” said Glenn Keefer, managing partner of Keefer’s Restaurant. “They can barely get enough people out to inspect brick-and-mortar places. I don’t understand how they’ll be able to supervise and enforce sanitation on these trucks and where they trade.”
Dan Rosenthal, owner of Trattoria No. 10 and Sopraffina Marketcaffe Restaurants, argue the mobile food truck ordinance creates an “unlevel playing field” for brick-and-mortar restaurants. “The reason I’ve located where I have is there’s a very dense population close to my locations. Why should somebody be allowed to take advantage of that for less than one-tenth of the expense?” he said. “Every dollar I lose in sales to a food truck down the street costs me 50-cents in profit. It doesn’t take a lot of decline in sales for restaurants to go out of business, particularly in this economy.”
Rosenthal further argued that legalizing mobile food trucks will not create the “warm, fuzzy, boutique-type of food service” that proponents envision. “People think you’ll get all these hot, young chefs who don’t have access to capital creating all these great, exotic dishes. But, there’s nothing preventing Corner Bakery from doing food trucks,” he said.“People had better be careful what they wish for. They could end up with food trucks serving standard fare, rather than unique street food.”
Like it or not, competition is what drives the free market. And finding a way to do something cheaper and more efficiently than the other guy, as the food trucks have done, isn’t unfair. It’s called innovation. Some restaurants may suffer, but consumers will benefit. We know from the popularity of outdoor food stations at neighborhood festivals that there’s an appetite for food trucks in Chicago. And we like the idea of up-and-coming chefs, who maybe can’t afford a bricks-and-mortar spot, getting a chance to wow us with meals on wheels. Licensing fees from the food trucks would bring the city sorely needed new revenue. It’s time Chicago joined the ranks of New York, Los Angeles, Portland and other big cities that have a thriving mobile food scene.