(This is the first 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 a link to part II.)
Part I: Start Up Needs, Costs and Stories:
On a freezing, bright morning, around 10:50am, four food trucks pull up to a designated stand on Monroe and Clark in Chicago’s Loop.
Sandwiched between two of the trucks is the tiny, vintage Doughnut Vault Van, helmed by restauranteur Brendan Sodikoff, the warm pastries the perfect antidote to the chilly wind. Even Sodikoff, entrepreneur extraordinaire (he’s opened eight restaurants in Chicago), sees the benefit in catching a ride on this burgeoning industry.
On board The Fat Shallot, a bright red truck that highlights the searing blue sky, husband and wife team Sarah Weitz and Sam Barron prepare for, hopefully, an onslaught of hungry patrons. Weitz leans out the service window, chatting with a repeat customer whom she welcomes back from a trip to Vegas, while Barron warms up the grill. Their current set-up is leagues different from where they were just a short while ago.
“When I met Sam, [he] was a chef at Everest, which was a fine dining French restaurant downtown,” says Weitz. “We were never together. I had a 9-5 job; Sam had to get into work at 11am and he’d be back at one in the morning. And he made absolutely nothing. Our goals for the next five years were to, you know, start a family and buy a house eventually.”
While both had entertained ideas of eventually owning their own business in the food industry, City regulations at the time only allowed food to be distributed on board food trucks—not cooked or prepared. Just a month after Barron and Weitz got married in June 2012, the City passed an ordinance allowing truck owners to cook onboard. It was pure serendipity.
“This is the perfect idea,” Weitz had told her husband, excitedly. “We can work for ourselves. You’re super talented, you can come up with menus. We can be seasonal and creative. I always wanted to manage a business, start my own thing, so I thought it was the perfect solution.”
They quit their jobs and risked everything to pursue their dreams.
“When we opened [The Fat Shallot], it was like, this is it,” says Weitz. “Either it was gonna work, or we were gonna both move back in with our parents. So, we got lucky.”
Finding Your Vehicle
Tip #1: The cost of your truck upfront might not reflect the true costs of licensing, rehabbing, etc. Do your homework and read up on Chicago code so you can get the most bang for your buck. And allow yourself plenty of time. Start up cost general guide below, from mobile-cuisine.com. The chart includes three areas; one time start-up costs, recurring start up costs, and costs that vary from area to area. Price ranges $= low, $$= average, and $$$= high for each area.
To get The Fat Shallot out of their dreams and onto the street, Weitz and Barron needed a truck. Since the industry is so young in Chicago, there was a scarce supply of used trucks, which would have saved them substantially on costs. They toured the country, from Florida to Colorado, hoping to find a used truck for a cheaper price.
However, they faced another challenge when considering trucks from other states. The couple discovered that they’d have to rehab any out-of-state truck to fit Chicago code—no cheap feat—canceling out potential savings. They decided to bite the bullet and build a truck locally.
The couple knew they had made the right decision. Once their truck was built to code and was licensed to distribute and cook food, the city passed them with little fanfare. “It’s almost a guarantee [when you build it here],” said Weitz. “I’m really glad we went that route. We probably still wouldn’t have a license if we hadn’t.”
The whole process took about eight months; Weitz and Baron thought it would take four. So plan ahead and keep a stream of income (or savings) during the liftoff period if you can.
Getting Yourself Some Prep Room
Alexis Leverenz, above
The smell of toasted cumin wafts through Kitchen Chicago, one of Chicago’s two shared kitchen spaces, run and operated by partners Jeff and Alexis Leverenz. Shared kitchen spaces like this one—also known as community or cooperative kitchens—allow multiple food businesses to rent space for commercial-scale prep. Aproned folks chat amongst themselves, talking shop, amid the din of mixing, chopping and oven timers. Here is the finishing school and incubator for now well known food trucks like Empanadas 5411 and the supper club turned hot new space, Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
Current health code laws in Chicago prevent any commercially sold food product from being prepared outside of a licensed kitchen (which does not include your personal countertop, no matter how spotless.)
Kitchen Chicago’s 4,000 sq. ft space holds three full size convection ovens, three conventional ovens and seven mixers, and is sanitized for commercial use. Spaces like this save fledging businesses from having to deal with the paperwork, licensing, and infrastructure of opening a restaurant right off the bat. Additionally, the shared kitchen framework allows for the sharing of ideas, tips and friendship between businesses, as well as a much needed morale boost when facing challenges. The Leverenzs are also available for help and advice when clients have a question.
If you are making for example, tamales, like Manny Hernandez at Tamale Spaceship (Chicago’s first food truck), you might decide you want to cook all your food at a shared kitchen, and simply warm it up and sell it to customers. This has a lot of advantages. For one, your customers don’t have to wait for long in line. For another, you don’t have to pay additional people to cook onboard your truck. The license types (mobile food preparer, mobile food dispenser) are also different, one is less costly than the other, although both have to be renewed every two years.
The other route, which The Fat Shallot uses, is to prep in a shared kitchen and assemble and cook food on board. The advantage of this is that it’s fresh, hot, and more versatile. Many foods don’t do well transported and chilled. The Fat Shallot’s meatball sub with the caramelized onions? French fries with a sesame seed aioli? Melted muenster grilled cheese? These things are best cooked to order.
For those based in the suburbs, Evanston’s Now We’re Cooking provides a shared kitchen space/event and demonstration studio, so you can prep food as well as crowd-test recipes and attract new customers before hitting the streets.
For part II of this series, which will discuss branding, concept development, and more, stay tuned!