By David Tamarkin | TimeOutChicago.com
Last April, Flirty Cupcakes turned the key on its food truck and hit the streets. Following that small act, a new generation of food trucks was born, among them gaztro-wagon, the Cupcake Gallery, Meatyballs, Simple Sandwich and More Mobile. As they popped up, more pressure was put on City Hall to amend mobile food laws, which restrict trucks from cooking on-site. (The proposed ordinance to change those laws is still in committee.) But that didn’t stop the trucks: This spring and summer—the unofficial food-truck seasons—the number of trucks on the road will almost double. As Chicago preps for its second food-truck summer, we check in with four trucks to hear about their first year in the still-burgeoning industry.
Cary Taylor The Southern Mac
Launched February 2011
“[Food trucks are] most definitely a sustainable business. For us, [a mac-and-cheese truck], we’re lucky that we’re selling something that everybody seems to be liking. If somebody were to go out and try to do a burger concept…that product may be more difficult to work with under the current system. Our concept is perfect for the system of Chicago. It’s very profitable.
“[If the food truck laws change], I know that I’m not going to sink over a hundred grand on a kitchen on wheels. There’s no way. Let’s put it like this: At this spot in Ravenswood today we sold 85 orders in 15 minutes, and we sold the other 35 orders at the Aon building in nine minutes. There’s no way that if you were cooking to order on the truck that you could handle that kind of volume.”
Tiffany Kurtz Flirty Cupcakes
Launched April 2010
“We honestly have not [seen a drop in sales due to other cupcake trucks]. … I think probably the bigger challenge is parking—having more trucks on the road—more so than sales. It’s kind of sad: I was meeting with my accountant, and she’s like, ‘I’ve never had to put [parking tickets] as a line item in a ledger.’ … We’re out for eight hours a day and we move quite a bit, so [parking tickets are] a bigger challenge for us. [But the current Chicago food-truck laws] don’t impact us at all. It’s not like we would ever bake cupcakes on our truck. For everyone else, I hope [the laws change]. And for myself, from a consumer standpoint, I would love for that to happen.
“The craziest thing—and this happens a lot—is if we’re driving down the interstate, people literally stopping traffic and trying to pull us over to get cupcakes. It’s insane! You’ll have someone pull up and they’re waving you to pull over. And you’re just like, Okay, we’re in the middle of rush-hour traffic. I cannot pull over.”
Matt Maroni gaztro-wagon
Launched July 2010
“I set out last year to start something—to hit on a niche here in Chicago—and [today] I did a 60-point turn to get into a parking space and we had a line there. I mean, I’m not a millionaire by any means. But I’m on target to hit almost half a million [dollars] in sales my first year. [But] I’m not ready to launch another truck yet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with that legislation before I do anything of that nature. Because I really want to cook on it.
“I know there are restaurants where I am probably not their favorite person. [But] the city of Chicago didn’t try to save Virgin Records when iTunes came out. I hear, ‘Well, [a food truck is] unfair competition [for restaurants].’ Well, it’s not. We’re running under a license. I pay my fees. I pay my taxes. It’s one of those things I just brush off my shoulders and keep moving.”
David Wojtonik Simple Sandwich
Launched September 2010; officially closed last month
“[I thought, My truck] won’t be worth that much once the legislation passes—go ahead and get rid of it now and we’ll get by in a new truck. So I sold the truck. And then, once I realized that the legislation wasn’t going anywhere, I started focusing my attention on doing a brick-and-mortar store—so like a gourmet grab-and-go.
“As far as the cost of entry to get into the business, it’s relatively low. The biggest expenditure that I found, which came as somewhat of a surprise, was the kitchen time. I was working out of [shared kitchen space] Kitchen Chicago. And at $10 an hour for prep and $20 an hour for cook, it doesn’t seem like that much. But then you underestimate the time you’re going to be in there, and then you’re in there twice as much as you thought you were going to be, and that becomes your biggest cost.
“Thing is, [the truck] was successful. I don’t want people to think that it’s a reflection of food trucks not working in Chicago. It’s actually not any of that.”
Eight food trucks will come together this Tuesday, April 19, for Chicago’s first food truck summit.