Not only does Jordan Cox say the food is excellent at Big Belly BBQ — he gets to talk to the owner every time he places an order.
Big Belly is one of 50 different “mobile food units” in Sangamon County, suggesting the Springfield area has jumped on the food-truck craze that has swept metropolitan areas throughout the United States.
(As defined by the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, a mobile food unit, which includes food trucks, is something not permanently attached to a sewer or water hookup.)
Cox enjoys eating at Big Belly BBQ, 2848 S. 11th St., because it offers quality food at a competitive price, without the hassle of dining at a restaurant.
“I’ll drive about 15 minutes just to come here on my lunch break because the food is so good, and I can try different stuff,” said Cox, 23, of Springfield.
In Sangamon County, the public health department issued more year-long mobile food permits in 2011 than it has in the past four years. The 50 permits are a 25 percent increase from last year and a 127 percent jump from the 22 permits issued in 2008.
The stands sell everything from snow cones to corn dogs, barbecue and chicken.
Tim Snodgrass, owner of Big Belly BBQ, said he thinks food trucks are gaining credibility with people.
In fact, a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association found that almost 60 percent of American adults say they would be likely to visit a food truck if their favorite restaurant offered one. That number is up from 47 percent last year.
Terry Stouffe, owner of Fins and Feathers Eatery, said he found that if he keeps the price of his food affordable and the quality high, people don’t worry that it’s not coming from a traditional restaurant.
For most of this year, Stouffe, who specializes in broasted chicken, parked his truck at a defunct gas station across from Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. He’s currently closed for the winter, but hopes to reopen at the same location next year.
“I try to charge $6 for most of my meals because people aren’t going to regularly pay $12 or so for lunch,” Stouffe said.
Why a food truck?
Chad Reese, owner of Chaditos Mexican American Grill at 3030 S. Sixth St., said he’s getting into the food truck business as a way to cross-promote his restaurant.
Reese also has a food cart stationed in downtown Springfield and a second Chaditos location in Chatham.
He said his food truck, which should be in full swing next month, probably will go to surrounding communities, such as Riverton, Williamsville and Rochester. He plans to announce the location of the truck on the @chaditos Twitter page.
If asked, he might park the truck outside large businesses for lunch in Springfield as well.
“I’m hoping that someone will try the food on the truck somewhere and want to go to the Sixth Street restaurant when they’re in Springfield,” he said.
For Big Belly’s Snodgrass, who comes from a family of restaurant owners, the freedom of not having a staff is what he likes best. He said he can mix up the menu as he pleases, as well as take the time to get to know his customers.
“I can give people better value because I don’t have to pay the overhead of having employees,” Snodgrass said.
Similarities to restaurants
The health department inspects food trucks as if they are miniature restaurants, according to Jessica Thoron, assistant director of environmental health.
The department more frequently inspects trucks that serve food that require more attention and preparation, she said.
The way the department determines that is by issuing three different types of permits: high, medium and low risk, she said.
Examples of food served at each are baby back ribs (high), corn dogs (medium) and snow cones (low), Thoron said.
“It may be on a smaller scale, but we are still checking for the same things,” she said.
Mobile food-permit numbers
“High-risk” mobile permits issued by the Sangamon County Department of Public Health
(high-risk permits indicate a more advanced level of food preparation, including full meals)
Chow-Ciao, Jefferson Street,
PJ’s Meals on Wheels, mobile unit
Mae’s Kitchen, Ninth & Cook streets
Warren Catering, various locations
Pinky’s Chicago Style Hotdogs, mobile unit
Fins And Feathers Eatery, various locations
L and L Concessions, mobile unit
Wingo Foods, mobile unit
Fish Hut, mobile unit
Special Ed’s BBQ & Catering, mobile unit
Big Belly BBQ, 2848 S. 11th St.
Midstate Meat mobile unit
Dr. BBQ, 2709 S. Sixth St.
Horse Creek Fish Wagon, various locations
Sunrise Cafe, mobile unit
Cool Breeze Sno Cones, 809 E. Converse Ave.
Coleman Concessions, various locations
Vose Concessions, mobile unit
Richard Rouse Kettle Corn, 3101 W. Wabash Ave.
Smokin Bobs Grill, various locations
Wicks Lil Orbits, mobile unit
Country Fryer, mobile unit
* Source: Sangamon County Department of Public Health