(This is the second installment of a column we’re writing on the ins and outs of restaurant and food design, where we’ll be exploring topics like food trucks, building conversions and energy efficient kitchens. In this installment, two of Chicago’s finest food trucks weigh in on what you need to know before you start a restaurant on wheels.) Here’s part I in case you missed it.
Part II: Keep your New Food Truck Running Hot & Developing Your Concept
Tip #1: Get some real world experience in the industry, however you can.
”A lot of people that were not in the food business don’t tend to last as long, once they get started as food truck owners”, Alexis Leverenz, the owner of Kitchen Chicago explains, in her sunny conference room. “The ones [that have] are the ones that stick around. The ones that know that the food business is hard, and you’re gonna be working holidays and on your feet. I think it just helps to have had that experience and know what you’re getting into. Whereas I think a lot of people think it’s a lot more romantic than it is. They just see Food Network.”
Tip #2: Don’t get discouraged by failure, just head back to the lab and try again.
“God bless the ones that stick it out,” says Leverenz. “It’s a lot of trial and error for them. They’ll make something and find out people aren’t buying it. So they try something else.”
Outside of the 600 West Chicago complex, home to Groupon, The Windy City Patty Wagon is sequestered in the back of a parking lot, alongside Wow Bao and Husky Hog BBQ food trucks. When we ask Danny Herrera, one half the WCPW team, whether this is a designated truck stop, he eyes the tiny kiosk in the lot. “We paid him to be here,” he tells me.
Brothers Danny and Lou Herrera started WCPW in 2012, focusing their efforts on slinging addictive burgers and hand-batched chips. Herrera, a restaurant veteran, is no stranger to the plague of too few good parking spots for food truck owners in the City of Chicago (among other obstacles that don’t burden Austin or New York). Here, a food truck has three options: feed the meter for street parking, find a designated truck stop and hope no one else has taken it (and abides by the two hour limit) or find an alternative: a parking lot, perhaps, or the University of Chicago campus where space isn’t at as high of a premium.
Brothers Danny Herrera (Left) and Lou Herrera (Right), co-founders of Windy City Patty Wagon
Herrera helped Carriage House get off the ground, as well as downtown bar/restaurant Rockit. Now a food truck owner himself, he advocates for fellow food trucks, having recently revived the Illinois Food Truck Owners Association, a group that pushes for positive, business friendly changes in the industry in an organized way. Herrera is a savvy businessman with integrity to spare.
“I won’t let this grow to the point where I’m not making the patties,” he says of his commitment to quality control.
And as for giving this the real life test: his burgers, a 81/19 ratio (lean/fat) patty that’s charbroiled for maximum flavor has been tested and reformulated extensively before its release to the public. When it comes to the charbroil vs griddle debate, Herrera is confident: “Hot dry heat keeps it crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.” The burger we try stands up to to the test: it’s perfectly cooked, not too greasy nor too lean; and adorned with caramelized onions and bleu cheese, it’s one of the best we’ve had in the city.
Herrera applies this analytical approach to his truck too. He and his brother built the entire thing from scratch, retooling, adjusting and relocating items as the mobile kitchen codes changed. Frustrating? Sure, but it didn’t stop the brothers from releasing one of the sturdiest and biggest food trucks in Chicago.
“Could you drive this thing cross-country?” we ask when Danny helps us climb on board. The truck is huge, and has the same engine as the nation’s premiere national delivery service.
“We went after the same ‘million mile engine’ as Fed Ex so it could drive anywhere,” says Herrera.
The Patty Wagon has enough space for double-time when the orders get crazy busy in the summer. That means two grills, two windows for taking orders and two garnish stations handling a pared down menu for maximum efficiency. There’s also a commercial hooded stove, a three compartment sink and a hand sink, a back-up fridge and a ladder.
You could comfortably take a whole family camping in it, and boy, would they eat like kings.
The “chef’s base” (a low boy fridge) below the grill holds 400 refrigerated patties, and Danny tells us that in the busy summer months they go through 100 burgers in an hour. That’s about two lunch services maximum without hauling back to their shared kitchen space at Smoke Chicago for more supplies.
And of course, there is timing. On board the food truck you’ve got a relatively tiny kitchen, and a customer with nowhere to hang his hat. You’ve also got a city with extremely hot and extremely cold weather, and this is America and, well, unless people are at Alinea (and even then) they just really don’t want to wait too long for their food.
Both Hernandez and Weitz have some words of wisdom for you, via a couple concepts they pulled off their menu, and a couple ingenious solutions that they added.
Tip #3: The product might taste great, but it has to fit your environment
For the Herreras, an epiphany was triggered by a gourmet’s version of a “Big Mac”: two of Windy City’s burgers, smooshed over a hunk of oozing cheese. Was it popular? Very. But popularity isn’t always enough. In truth, the mechanics of the thing weren’t realistic for a busy truck and a ferocious Chicago climate. The double decker burger took about 15 minutes to cook, and that was just too long. The Herreras ended up pulling the sandwich, to make room for fare that was more tailored to their audience: cubicle dwellers eager to enjoy as much of their lunch break (and lunch) as possible before having to rejoin the daily grind—not spend it shivering in the cold. A delicious product may bring people back, but it’s understanding and managing expectations and the environment that you serve it in that will make or break the experience.
Ask yourself about each menu item: how does this fit into someone’s everyday life? Maybe that’s not important at the observatory deck at the Hancock, but a food truck is supposed to be a part of everyday life. Lunch, the domain of most food trucks, is one of the most utilitarian meals, but it’s also an opportunity for escape and to enjoy a small dose of luxury in the middle of the work day. Where the two points meet, there are bound to be happy customers.
Timing is Everything
Tip #4: Learn what works the fastest, and quickfire it during busy times
For The Fat Shallot, it was all about a delicious-sounding sandwich with salami.
“[Barron] came up with our initial menu which is four or five sandwiches. And then we kinda knocked it down to four, to get things out fast enough,” Weitz explains. “That’s really what a lot of its about: people are in a rush and have to go back to work. One we do that’s really popular is this salami sandwich we did with a fried egg in a pretzel bun. We do still have it once in a while, [but] we realized we have so many people coming to the truck and waiting in line, that it’s not possible for the space we have, for us [to fry the egg each time].”
“We can do it…we just almost need like a bigger flat top,” Weitz says. “And two people cooking. We kinda learned over time what sandwiches work the fastest.”
Tip #5: Always look for ways to improve the customer experience (and make it easier for you too.)
Weitz and Barron were also the first food truck to use online ordering, which allows customers to place their order, individually or as a group, and pick it up as soon as it is ready, as well as schedule an order to be placed later in the day. The Herreras plotted out their truck ahead of time, giving it two discrete areas for service so they could get orders out extra quickly when it was busy.
Weitz and Barron developed their app to make it simple for the customer to use and easy for them to understand. It has a built in capacity so no one can order 80 sandwiches at once and expect to have them ready in fifteen minutes.
Tip #6: Fuel is precious, so keep your truck warm
Fearing the explosion of propane tanks (which is the way food trucks heat their grills and fryers) the city instituted a restriction on the size of the tank’s food trucks used to heat and power their operation. Two 40 lb. tanks is the max that can be carried on board a truck; this will get you through two–four services per tank. Much less in the winter, because propane gas behaves differently when its cold.
And of course, a single griddle is one thing, but a fryer, a flatop and a grill will burn through two tanks pretty quickly.
To address this problem, the Herreras store their truck indoors at night, keeping the propane tanks cozier and getting them more mileage from a single use.
Weitz and Barron echo the challenges of working in a small space, with limited storage.
“There’s no back-up coolers or ingredients,” Barron explains. Supplies run out fast on the truck and it’s difficult to keep it all organized. If somebody orders a larger quantity than expected of a certain sandwich, and less of another, there isn’t enough space (or time) to replenish stock in order to meet demand.
On the bright side, there aren’t as many standard kitchen warnings (like “sharp behind” to indicate you are carrying a razor sharp knife), as there is minimal staff, and not as many games of tetris-like maneuvering that can be stressful in most restaurant kitchens.
The Fat Shallot’s made-to-order fries, drizzled in spicy seasme aioli and black sesame seeds
Regardless of space limitations, The Fat Shallot is producing incredible food that is popular with their customers. When we visit their truck, Weitz presents a “sample” of fries with housemade spicy sesame aioli at us. “That’s not really a sample,” she smiles, as we dig into the brimming paper boat. They are delicious. We are also lucky enough to try one of their house sandwiches, a warm meatball sub made with beef and pork meatballs, shaved fennel and breadcrumbs.
And there’s one implicit bonus to the limited storage space on the food truck: everything has to be fresh as can be, because there’s nowhere to store leftovers or backups.
Tip #7: Prepare yourself to dedicate full time, or more, to running your own business, as well as doing all the labor involved
Weitz and Barron get to spend their whole day together, but when The Fat Shallot is on the road, it’s mostly working. They both get up around 6am, and head to Smoke Chicago to do their prep for the day. The truck opens at 11am, and service is done around 1pm. Breaking everything down and getting ready for tomorrow takes them till about 4pm. And then, after a ten hour day, they get to go home and do it all again. Except the Fat Shallot also does catering and special events to increase visibility and income: multi course menus that deviate from their sandwich fare. While wonderful opportunities, doing one or two of these a week as well as running the truck is definitely not the “light” commitment aspiring food truck owners might envision.
While two hours of service a day can sound easy compared to a typical restaurant’s, where days can be 12 hours long or more, the smaller truck size usually means less staff, and less staff usually means you’re doing most of the heavy lifting (prep, clean up, selling, cooking, driving) on your own.
Practically, this might mean starting a business with a partner or someone who’s invested in your success that you trust and that has the skills you need. Or perhaps you plan to hire out a few employees, but balancing profit with payroll will definitely have to be assessed in a critical way.
Tip #8: Constant communication with your customers means you can expect some serious flexibility—but don’t leave for too long or you might lose some regulars.
Of course, the plus side of having few to zero employees, and having your business exist rent free and self-contained is major flexibility.
“We’re taking a little hiatus for three weeks,” Weitz tells me over tea in North Center. “So in February, we’ll be closed. I mean, that’s the other great thing. I want to open a restaurant, but we do have a lot of flexibility with the truck. Because people have to find us, and we’re not in one location, we have like the flexibility to close or not be on the road. [Although] I don’t like to close, because I think my customers expect me to be in a certain place at a certain time, and they get upset when I’m not. But we have more flexibility than a restaurant.”
Some trucks take off months to go traveling, get re-inspired and invigorated, or just get out of the dog-eat-dog world of trying to make ends meet in the restaurant business during a Chicago winter.
Tip #9: Honestly evaluate your costs, from equipment to licenses to opportunity costs of not having time to do other work.
“A lot of people think doing a food truck in Chicago is a very inexpensive way to get into the restaurant business,” says Lou. “It’s not.”
“I know people who’ve gotten restaurants off the ground for cheaper than we got this truck off the ground for,” Danny tells me. “If it wasn’t for regulations than we wouldn’t have spent that, you know, on a hood, fire suppression system, custom and all that. We had no options at the time. According to the city, we had to do that.”
For part III of this series, which will cover the steps needed to move to a brick and mortar space, stay tuned!