Reinventing the Taco Truck

One day, you might look out your office window and see your lunch literally driving by. It might be in the form of a grilled cheese truck, or a gourmet fusion of Korean barbeque and Mexican tacos. But the key to changing Chicago’s culinary landscape is sitting in a five-inch binder in Alderman Scott Waguespack 32nd Ward office.

It comes in the form of an ordinance written by chef Matt Maroni, and it would alter current Chicago laws banning cooking on food trucks. It would legalize trucks more like those found in Los Angeles or New York: mobile kitchens that can cook and serve their products no matter where they are, instead of the trucks allowed by current ordinances, which can only keep prepackaged food warm or cold.

With the support of a few aldermen, fellow chef Phillip Foss, and some Chicago media outlets, Maroni’s months of hard work will be introduced to the Chicago City Council on June 9.

The lack of mobile food in Chicago has come under scrutiny from Chicago food lovers and culinary professionals since Maroni and Foss launched Chicago Food Trucks, a website devoted to bringing mobile food to Chicago. Time Out Chicago has fueled the fire by introducing their blog, Street Food Now, a public venue for news and discussion about the issue.

“We’re basically creating a whole new industry for Chicago,” Maroni says.

The Logistics

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection for the city of Chicago issues the licenses required to be a “mobile food dispenser.” As of this May, there are only 144 active licenses for mobile food dispensers, including those for companies like Thunderbird Catering, which have multiple vehicles.

The two-year, $275 license allows one vehicle to serve food that is cooked and prepackaged in an approved facility. Food is then either kept warm or cold within the truck as it makes its rounds throughout the day.

This makes it difficult to keep food tasting fresh and at the right temperature. “It’s not the best way to eat food,” says Maroni, a chef who has worked in the restaurant business for 15 years.

Behind on the times

Street food is nothing new to most cities. It’s part of an entire culture in Los Angeles and in New York, but in America’s second city, the idea of a taco truck is almost completely foreign. Though you can find a scattered fleet of lunch trucks downtown serving packaged sandwiches, pastries, and drinks, Chicago is far behind in the street food revolution.

Though neither Waguespack nor 43rd Ward Alderman Vi Daley — the main aldermen involved in the movement —  knew of any outright opposition to the proposal, other officials have expressed concerns that need to be addressed before the change will be possible.

How and where would the trucks be inspected by city officials? Where would they be allowed to park? Would they put brick-and-mortar restaurants out of business by parking directly outside their door? Would there be some sort of food truck court where they could gather?

Still, Waguespack remains optimistic about the plan, which was created after extensive research into the laws and ordinances governing food trucks in other cities. “I don‘t really see a downside to doing it and I don’t think the public has seen a downside either,” he said.

Working Around Restrictions

Maroni has a personal stake in the ordinance. He plans to launch his own truck, the Gaztro-Wagon, this summer. For the moment, he will operate under the city’s limitations, cooking the food at his storefront in Edgewater before loading up his truck and feeding his gourmet naan-wiches –braised meats and smoked fish wrapped in naan bread — to the hungry masses at lunchtime or as they leave bars.

Yet Tiffany Kurtz’s truck, Flirty Cupcakes, is doing just fine without a kitchen. Each day, around 400 cupcakes are loaded into the inconspicuous baby blue van after being prepared in Kitchen Chicago, a shared-use kitchen on the West Side.

The Flirty Cupcakes team sends out an approximate route for the day via Twitter, then Tweets updates and specifics as they find parking and start doling out cupcakes. It found a devoted following almost immediately after being launched in early May.

“The people have been phenomenal, tweeting and retweeting — doing a lot of the work for us,” Kurtz says. “It’s been even better than I envisioned.”

Amy Loch, 35, had never heard of Flirty Cupcakes until it pulled up near her workplace in Evanston, but she was sold instantly.

“I think that it’s kind of an adult way to relive your youth, like ice cream trucks but with cupcakes,” she says. “I will definitely become their Facebook friend.”

Dumpling Dreams:

Victor Huang and Alecia Nadzan have sustained their friendship over the years with their common love of two things: graphic design and food.

The former roommates, who both attended Chicago art schools, are the founders of Woo Yeah’s — Chicago’s future dumpling truck.

The project has been in the works for almost a year now, even though they realized the near-impossibility of starting a food truck in Chicago almost immediately. The launch of the Chicago Food Trucks movement gave them hope, they say. As for now, they plan to have their truck running by next summer.

Huang, 25, and Nadzan, 21, come from families “highly influenced by food.” Huang’s father works as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in his hometown of San Diego. Nadzan’s family owns a deli in her native Michigan where, while still in high school, she did most of the baking.

“I’m Chinese so I grew up with dumplings,” Huang says, adding that he’s still waiting on his father’s pork and chive dumpling recipe.

But Woo Yeah’s does its own take on the traditional Chinese dumpling. Though they are still in the testing phase, their dumpling selection includes a maple pork dumpling and a vegetarian dumpling with shiitake mushrooms. They also make their own sauces to complement the different dumplings, and plan to use as many local products in their cooking as possible.

The duo’s graphic design background shines through in their logo, a friendly green dinosaur with a dumpling body. Huang and Nadzan say they want to release a new character to go with each new type of dumpling.

Though they plan to rent a kitchen to cook their dumplings in, they say they will still outfit their truck with cooking equipment, too, in hopes the laws will change. “One day — if it does happen — we’ll be ready to go,” Nadzan says.

The venture does come with a high level of risk. “It’s a huge investment for us — to be buying ingredients to test out in our kitchen, to invest in the things we’re doing as far as promotion — that’s a risk right now,” Haung says. “We’re not sure what the city is going to ever allow us to do.”

But for now, the two are following their dreams. “We love food. We love eating,” Nadzan says. “So we want to share our passion with everyone.

When the cupcake truck rolled into Lincoln Square one Saturday, recent Facebook fan Jenny Romero rushed out to buy a “Curious George” cupcake, a banana and chocolate cupcake with a salted caramel icing. “It’s ingenious,” she says. “So excited!” she gushed as she walked off, cupcake in hand.

More trucks are set to hit the streets this summer, as well as the summer after. Maroni says his Gaztro-Wagon will launch in June, and Happy Bodega, a truck featuring French baguette sandwiches and gelato, is set to launch soon. Woo Yeah’s, a Chinese-style dumpling truck, is expected to be in business by next summer.

Hidden Benefits

More so than traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks can add another cultural experience for both locals and tourists.

“Street food is really important to the culinary culture of a city,” says Alecia Nadzan, one of the founders of Woo Yeah’s. “It’s definitely a different experience than eating in a restaurant.”

Even now, the few food trucks in Chicago tend toward more ethnic foods, such as the African food trucks that frequent the Loop area, and if current plans are any indication, the future of food trucks is leaning toward more experimental fare.

“I think we should have more of this kind of thing in the city” said 54-year old Zeze Dasilva, a Flirty Cupcakes customer. She says she would like to see more street food, especially near the lakefront, like she has seen in other countries.

“It’s a cultured city,” notes Maroni. “I just think [food trucks are] another way to add value to the city, for tourism, for locals [and] for entrepreneurs.”

And the value provided by food trucks is not just cultural. Starting a restaurant is expensive and high risk. It’s difficult to get a loan for the million or more dollars it costs to build a restaurant, but a food truck might only set you back $30,000-$100,000. It is a way to create jobs, as Maroni can testify – he was unemployed when he began writing the food truck ordinance, but now owns his own truck and storefront.

A food truck is a way to start out small and break into the culinary field – an area that’s increasingly accepting of it.

Gaining Ground

With a similar movement erupting in Atlanta, and the already established popularity of mobile food in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Austin, and Portland, Ore., food trucks will not be disappearing any time soon. Regardless of the outcome in Chicago’s city council, they are becoming more integrated into the national culinary scene.

The National Restaurant Association’s convention in Chicago this May featured an entire section devoted to the “mobile food truck trend” and included exhibitors and informational sessions tailored specifically to food trucks.

But those involved in the Chicago movement say they are optimistic about the ordinance’s future. “At the end of the day,” Maroni says, “it’s going to be a huge thing…it will add just another thing that’s great about Chicago.”
Play with a Flash map of food trucks around the city!