By Tricia Cathcart, Rob Larson, Angelika Lazaricia, & Paige Wagenknecht
The Depaulia | DepauliaOnline.com
Lately, the idea of meals on wheels is beginning to take on a whole new meaning.
Across the country, gourmet meals are leaving the restaurants and hitting the streets of big cities like Los Angeles and New York City. Here in Chicago, the trend is also gaining momentum, though it hasn’t come to fruition as fast as some hoped.
Under current law, food trucks can only sell their customers pre-packaged food, but a proposed ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Scott Waguespack of the 32nd Ward, seeks to allow vendors to prepare their product inside their trucks, as long as they abide by specific health standards. In turn, the food trucks must follow specific routes, making sure they’re not imposing on the business of established restaurants and food stores.
A mobile food facility (MFF) is commonly known as a food truck or catering van. Allowing the operation of mobile food facilities in Chicago will allow for considerable revenue for the city, while creating a new industry that allows further entrepreneurial opportunity, job creation and a vivid food culture that will attract tourists and community members alike.
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel even said he would consider the proposed ordinance because it could combat the problem of “food deserts” in the city. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, around 600,000 people in Chicago reside in neighborhoods without affordable grocery stores in proximity, so many are forced to travel far to access healthier food or pay high prices at convenience stores.
Chef Cary Taylor of The Southern, a bar and restaurant in Chicago that serves comfort food, has launched a mobile food truck called The Southern Mac and Cheese Truck. The truck serves an incredible variety of what can be called gourmet macaroni and cheese specialties.
The Mac and Cheese Truck stands out by serving outstanding mac and cheese dishes, fused with unique flavors and ingredients. Taylor says that mobile food trucks allow for the expansion of their business for those who currently have traditional standing restaurants.
“With the truck, we are able to provide food services to a variety of neighborhoods and the ability to travel to areas where the demand for quality meals is highest,” says Taylor. “We provide a venue where neighbors can meet, greet and eat!”
Fans of mac and cheese can also follow the truck on Twitter. Taylor updates the truck’s current location numerous times a day.
One of the first mobile food trucks to show up around DePaul’s campus was the Flirty Cupcakes vehicle. Started by married couple Tiffany Kurtz and Chris Sewall, they serve as an example of what can happen when determination overrules the current laws that would have otherwise prevented them from distributing their pre-packaged product. In May of 2010, they launched Flirty Cupcakes, a traveling cupcake store.
Like the mac and cheese truck, Flirty Cupcakes also utilizes social media such as Facebook and Twitter to gain customers, but in addition, they have put their entire company’s stock into these outlets. Their loyal fans wait for their “tweets” to see where they will be every day, like a scavenger hunt.
Kurtz and Sewall say that mobile food trucks allow entrepreneurs another avenue in which to start their own business at a much lower start up cost. “Our vision is to launch this one and get another truck for this city,” Kurtz says, “and then expand to other cities.”
In regards to Chicago’s landlocked eateries, there is a mixed response on how these mobile food trucks impact their business.
Andja Branko, who runs Branko’s Submarines, which is located right on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, is not threatened by the appearance of such trucks near her establishment.
“I’m all for these food trucks because I’m all for people who have the strength to try something different, to be creative. I applaud people who do that,” Branko says
“I’m not worried about competition. I just want to make sure that our customers leave happy, and if they do, then I have nothing to worry about. These are tough times and it’s hard on everybody, but we all have to survive, to find a way.”
Erin Wolffon, the manager of Chicago’s Dog House says, “It’s a good thing. I’m actually thinking of opening one myself. In my opinion, I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the city.”
Other restaurant owners have been more outspoken against the idea of food trucks patrolling the city’s streets.
Steve Fisher, manager of Uncle Sammy’s Sandwich Classics, a DePaul favorite, is among them.
“I understand that these food trucks are showing up as a result of the bad economy. After all, it’s easier to maintain a truck with a couple of people on board than it is to run an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant. So in that sense, yes, it’s a great way to start up a business,” Fisher said.
“But on the other hand, I think it’s also a selfishly-motivated business model that will be bad for our economy.”
According to Fisher, these food trucks have much less at stake than “brick-and-mortar” establishments. “If these trucks can’t find any customers in an area, all they have to do is drive away.”
Although these traveling caravans are buzzing around the city, finding a new location every couple hours or less, they still make time to stop on college campuses, gaining much business from the students roaming around. They can often be seen on Fullerton and Kenmore, parked near the John T. Richardson Library, a hotspot for student activity.
These food trucks are also readily available downtown as well, if you can track them down. Zoe McAskin, a sophomore at Columbia College says, “I [hadn’t] seen one anywhere until last weekend when I was shopping off Beaumont and there was one that only sold cupcakes! But it was unbelievably expensive and I thought also very odd since I had never seen one. The people working at it were obnoxiously shouting at everyone on the street to buy them, very annoying.”
Other students wish that these mobile treats were more easily accessible, saying that it’s hard to track them down when they have a craving. “I haven’t seen it around campus much,” says junior Arielle Neher, “but I like the idea of the cupcake trucks, although oftentimes one can only locate them via Twitter tweets and not everyone has a Twitter.”
Sylwia Borowska is a sophomore at DePaul who works at the popular Chicago cupcake bakery, Molly’s Cupcakes on Clark St. Several of these mobile trucks specialize in baked goods, like cupcakes.
“I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard about many of them,” says Borowska. “One of the guys actually came in to Molly’s and he was from the cupcake truck, he told us that he had been parked down the street but didn’t realize we were there and that he wanted to apologize. He said he didn’t want it to look like he was stealing business from us, so I’d say that they aren’t really competition for us.”
DePaul junior Katie Fearon appreciates the presence of the mobile food trucks when they stop at DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. “I think they are a nice option for students. It’s a quick way to grab some food in-between classes and a nice change from the choices of restaurants around that I usually would stop at.”
For more information on the mobile food trucks or to find out where your favorite foods will be traveling next, visit http://www.chicagofoodtrucks.com.