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Feature Fri May 27 2011

You Can't Drink the Kool-Aid If You Can't Find the Kool-Aid: A Dissenting Opinion on Food Trucks

The Chicago food truck debate has been approaching a fever pitch within the last few weeks, between Heather Shouse's recent book and the National Restaurant Association show last weekend. It occurred to me, ever-present as this issue has become, maybe it's time for me to start caring about it. And then it occurred to me that, while I tend to offer blanket support for anything that reduces the Byzantine nature of Chicago's food laws, I have no experience with which to back up my food truck support. And then it occurred to me that that was kind of...strange.

I do not now, nor have I ever, considered myself a professional, investigative journalist. And I allow myself a certain amount of leeway on knowledge regarding Chicago food issues, if for not other reason than the sheer volume of them. Foie gras, dogs on patios, trans-fats, CSAs, croissant-gate. I mean honestly, who can keep track of it all? Food trucks have been around for a while now, yes, but I realized I hadn't actually seen one in person until about four weeks ago. And herein were sown the seeds of my food truck doubt -- if I haven't even experienced one of these things, is it really deserving of my full-throated, unquestioning support? Does it really matter?

I know what you're thinking. Blasphemy! Of course it matters! Food trucks are about a freedom from the strictures of where and when we enjoy our food! They're the vanguard of the gourmet avant-garde, bringing their edgy, adventurous wares directly to the skeptical diner and broadening horizons from the collar counties to the lakeshore! They offer young chefs an opportunity to experiment with the model! But is that all really, you know, true?

Claim by claim, I would offer the following rebuttal: Food trucks serve lunch and dinner -- it's not like they're out there offering commuter breakfast or late-night snacks (though THAT would be awesome). Food trucks tend to hug the contours of the prevailing trends as closely as any other struggling small-scale eatery -- the most prevalent mobile food is cupcakes, for goodness sake. It's not like they're doing pre-packaged molecular gastronomy for the masses in those re-purposed delivery vehicles. And food trucks aren't exactly making inroads into the city's food deserts, which is where they'd perhaps have the greatest impact and provide the most welcome service -- they tend to congregate in the Loop, or in a few select north neighborhoods. (This notable exception isn't exactly a food truck by mainstream standards, though one could argue it's must closer to the mobile food mission than its trendy peers.) And in terms of upending the model and mitigating the risk of novel food, when the bi-coastal asian food taco trend hit town, we got the newly remodeled Del Seoul storefront, not copycat Kogi and Kimchi Taco trucks.

All right. Let's say that all of that is a given. Food trucks should still be right up the alley of a young, cuisine-conscious, working professional such as myself, right? Well therein lies the other rub. Does anyone else have a hard time actually finding these things? I don't know about you, but my experience with trying to actually eat from a food truck can be categorized into three, consistent scenarios:

  1. I pass a food truck in my car, en route to someplace I need to be, without either time or parking access to stop.
  2. I pass a food truck on foot, but already have my pre-packed home-lunch with me, or am en route to meet someone for dinner or lunch plans I've already made elsewhere.
  3. I am on foot, without pre-packaged home-lunch, hungry and ready to go! And then can't find the food truck.

The third case was my experience last week in trying to search out the Southern Mac and Cheese truck. I was working downtown, had deliberately not brought a lunch from home, and after 20-30 minutes of scouring Twitter and the web schedules of several likely candidates, it seemed the Southern truck would be descending upon Lower Michigan by the Wrigley building right around lunch time. Perfect!

Southern twitter feed

Now, part of my struggle here arises, no doubt, from the fact that I am smartphone-deficient, and until two weeks ago when I started trying to track a truck down in earnest, Twitter-invisible. So after leaving my office, I had no way of knowing if a more specific location was detailed (though that didn't seem to be the case), and no ability to make sure I had correctly remembered the location stated. So I marched over and wandered around Lower Michigan between the river and Grand a while, and other than a faint cheese scent in the air, and a mail truck which I began decisively walking towards until it came into better focus, I found nothing. No truck. And more frustrating, no lunch.

No food trucks here...

Finally, earlier this week, I finally caught the Gaztro-Wagon. It was a spur of the moment decision -- I was on my way to my dinner plans, and had already had a large late-afternoon snack, but I was undeterred by my lack of hunger when I saw it parked on Fullerton, a block or so west of the Red Line. So I sidled up and ordered me a pork cheeks and sweet potato hash naan-wich. It was cold, I was the only person in line so there was no service- or wait-time. And I will say, being handed a brown paper bag full of toasty, anticipated goodness goes a long way towards shifting a cranky attitude.

What's inside???

Working the window, Matt Maroni told me that people often sit on the curb or any available patch of grass when it's nice (which it wasn't), or just take their bounty home -- which is what I did. And for me, home was 9 train stops away, plus a 5-minute walk from the CTA to my front door. The naan-wich survived the trip well, and the foil wrapper was still warm when I peeled it back to reveal its contents. A warm, doughy smell of yeasty bread and pot roast washed over me. And this was exactly how the Chipotle burrito-sized 'wich tasted. Like pot roast on bread. No, not terrible. But good enough for its $9.99 sticker price? Sigh.

Pork Cheeks, Sweet Potato, Leek, Apple and Fennel Hash -- Gaztro-WagonDon't get me wrong. It was a warm, juicy sandwich, great for a cold evening. But the flavor was disappointingly one-note -- I kept re-reading the label and trying to find any discernible hint of the leeks and fennel the hash supposedly contained. The bread seemed like naan in name only, reminding much more strongly of a Cosi flatbread than of the strong, stretchy fluffiness of its namesake. It was all just, well, fine. The next day, I grabbed a shawarma schrock from Nesh, a shoebox-sized Mediterranean spot a few blocks east of the Fullerton Red Line. And for about half the price (I had a coupon, but the normal ticket would be about $7.50), I got a comparably sized sandwich with infinitely more complex flavors -- seared, juicy steak enrobed in creamy tzatziki and hummus, counterposed against the crunch of red cabbage and dill pickes, all wrapped in a thinner but more textually layered flatbread. And I didn't even have to check Twitter.

My point here is not to capsize the argument that Chicago food preparation and serving laws are unfair and restrictive to food trucks, and deserving of reform. Chicago food laws in general are unduly conservative and overly suspicious of anything that stretches the legal expectations of the norm, to the detriment of all sorts of well-meaning food service professionals and their constituents (CSA shares might be terrorist bombs! We don't understand shared-use kitchens!). And while the recent tour bus episode of Top Chef Masters doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, I say if people want to cook on a truck, let 'em -- or at the very least make it easier for them to try.

For me, though, food trucks raise as many questions as they attempt to address -- and few others seem to be asking them in their place. What's the carbon footprint on these things? Is it better, environmentally speaking, to operate out of a fossil fuel-dependent vehicle than a small store-front? And how much does the price of gas impact the price of the food, anyway? (Should we anticipate a fuel surcharge, similar to Chicago taxis, when gas prices climb above a certain point?) What is the virtue of departing from the street food ethos of serving the working people, in favor of a higher-end market segment? Who's really being served? What is the real service, the real, worth-fighting-the-man, civic service these trucks are providing to us, as a city?

It may be a worthy fight, but I'm not sure the grievances of food trucks' particular struggle outweigh those of entire neighborhoods all over the city (and especially those neighborhoods that see the least food truck traffic), of city employees caught in the vortex of the incoming administration's churn, or even some of the Chicago food issues that continue to plague our neighbors and our children? I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid yet, I guess -- and I'm not convinced I would be even if I had easy, dependable access to the nearest Kool-Aid truck. Not without a heaping side of skepticism.

 

Ion / May 27, 2011 12:19 PM

You claim not to be a real journalist, and this piece proves your own intuition correct. Just because YOU haven't had the opportunity to experience food truck Nirvana, does not mean that it doesn't exist or that the food truck is undeserving of the support and enthusiasm of Chicagoans.

I find it odd that you can formulate such an opinion based only on your experience in Chicago. Very odd seeing as how the issue is that Chicago food trucks are inherently handicapped by the current state of the law.

And how can you claim that food trucks only serve lunch/dinner in the same article that you mention the proliferation of cupcake trucks? (Also, this trend seems somewhat specific to Chicago because cupcakes can easily be sold within the current legal framework). I have experienced dessert trucks in NYC (a late night snack from the waffle truck is always worth it) as well as those serving lunch, dinner, and breakfast (and early morning coffee.) Chicagoans should be able to have this experience too, despite your inability to understand why.

R / May 27, 2011 1:23 PM

@ION: Retract your claws, please! Food trucks have been a huge issue in the city over the last couple of years, and while tons of chefs and restaurants are jumping on the trend to go mobile, it illustrates the fact that they tend to concentrate in the same areas (there was some talk about food trucks working in underserved areas, but I doubt that will ever have much steam), and much of the experience has to be tied in to having the technology to keep up with them online or via text, which is a bummer.

Also, this is a Chicago-centric blog, so the writer's opinions will be based on her experience here. Sorry pal.

Andie / May 27, 2011 3:21 PM

It's totally true, I haven't experienced food trucks in other cities. (I haven't been to a city other than Chicago that has food trucks in a long time...) A late-night waffle truck sounds AMAZING -- but part of the legal strictures in Chicago have to do with the times at which trucks can peddle their ware -- namely, lunch and dinner times. So while you can get a non-entree item like a cupcake, it's got to be at a traditional meal time.

Jack / May 27, 2011 4:33 PM

I'm totally against food trucks and not for the reasons stated above. How is it fair for a truck to pull up near a bricks and mortar restaurant and start selling food. The restaurant has to pay very expensive food licenses and liquor licenses. Fees for their sign, awning and outside cafes. Fees for inspections of their refrigeration and health inspections. Then some guy pulls up in front in a repurposed mail truck and competes against him. Go open a real restaurant. How are these trucks allowed to be downtown anyway, when I thought they had to be a certain distance away from a restaurant. There is nowhere downtown where there isn't a food establishment. Food trucks add nothing to the city of Chicago. There are plenty of late night restaurants around where you can get waffles. If you want food trucks find a desolate area and let them open up a food truck park. Just keep them away from the real restaurants.

Andie / May 27, 2011 6:23 PM

That's a great point, Jack, and one of the prevailing arguments against food trucks -- I wasn't able to work it into my critique, but it's a valid point.

Ron / May 27, 2011 8:12 PM

Poorly written. A pathetic cry for help. Seriously, who wrote this crap?

r / May 27, 2011 9:12 PM

@Ron: How is this story a "pathetic cry for help"? - it is a statement of opinion and observation by a very competent writer. You're welcome to disagree, but reach a bit deeper into your bag of insults if you want to make a relevant counterpoint. Why do people always make it personal? Totally unnecessary.

Bimbo / May 29, 2011 7:42 AM

I have to agree with many of your points put forth in this article.Many involved in this foodtruck/cart push have glossed over serious isssues.These are the realistic issues and people are jumping into the food truck biz unwittingly.
I owned and operated the first gourmet food cart in another city 2002-2005.It was stationary which created a devoted and regular clientele. Had I been roaming I would not have built up a 400 strong daily specials email list in the first 6 months. They knew where they needed to go without chasing me on some live site. Being stationary I was able to concentrate more on prep and quality.I had a fully outfitted car and grossed $125k annually + tips being open 5 days a week only from 11am-3pm. I paid $750 per month on the lot for water,power and the corner downtown space.
Insurance was a round $1,200 annually + city license fees, health department, etc.
I began my shopping and prep at 8am and was done cleaning up by 4:30.
Being stationary , in my humble, is key to making it work. Setting aside food truck lots and regulating their APPEARANCE is the way to go.
There are so many issues not being addressed in Chicago with this issue.
Watching from the sidelines I see future explosions in the road of bringing food trucks to Chicago for owners, customers, brick and mortars they may be near.
Poor sanitation by a handful of owner will degrade the scene.
Many of the models out there currently are not financially sustainable in my opinion.$9.99 for that sandwich is not sustainable to keep customers coming to pay the bills.
Good article.

Ion / June 2, 2011 10:52 AM

Sorry for the late post, but I would like to point out the idiocy of limiting information from other cities merely because this is a "Chicago" blog. Isn't it a benefit to look outside of the city, especially when the issue at hand is whether or not things should change? How do you know what Chicago under different rules might look like unless you inspect other cities that currently have such rules?

Because the point of view I am arguing against is so clearly infantile, this will be my last post.

mare / June 3, 2011 7:05 AM

Andie: hoorah for the dissenting viewpoint! i never got the fuss over food trucks (trendy hipsterism, say i!), plus, I am rarely in the loop to partake of one. I do, however, want to eat at Nesh now.

Craighton / June 3, 2011 7:32 AM

No smartphone, yet trying to report on the smartphone-centric food scene? That's like not owning dress clothes, yet trying to report on fine dining--it's not gonna work.

R / June 3, 2011 12:03 PM

@Ion: Again, find some relevant adjectives here. GB is a Chicago-centric blog; while we keep abreast of what food trucks are doing in other cities, we don't cover it. If we DID cover it, our publication would be USA Today. I'll miss you, buddy.

@Craighton: The fact that finding food trucks is so smartphone-centric is a problem--that's one of the gripes the writer has about the scene.

Jen / June 3, 2011 7:16 PM

Andie - nice points, particularly those relating to gas consumption of these vehicles and the fact that food-wise, there are many more important issues.

I'm working an awful temp job without internet access where we aren't allowed to use our cell phones in the work rooms even if we have them (yes, some people do have to work such shit jobs in this economy for money -- the horror! the reality!) Said job is also in the "West Loop" aka by Union Station, and the only fucking truck I've seen is the goddamned Flirty Girl Cupcakes of whatever shitshow that is. How much are those things anyway? I didn't look for fear I'd be seriously pissed off at a $5 cupcake.

The fact that these trucks seem to only visit a handful of areas downtown that, granted, are packed with employees with good non-shit jobs is understandable, but also sucks for those of us who are not said decently-employed people.

Screw the haters, I'm with you. Food trucks, what's the big deal?

Jen / June 3, 2011 7:19 PM

and I find Ion's rant to be quite hilarious. isn't that how people form opinions, based on their own experiences? I wonder whose experiences he bases his opinions on.

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