Chicago: Food Trucks Bring Dining to Curbside

Joaquin Soler Photo by Tiffany Boncan

 Joaquin Soler, who owns the Brown Bag Lunch Truck, uses social 
media to connect with customers. (Photo by Tiffany Boncan)

Chicago Stop IconBy Tiffany Boncan
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, Oct. 31, 2011

Locals call the space “Smoker’s Corner,” just north of 600 West Chicago Avenue.

But just past that space, at the intersection of Kingsbury and Larrabee streets, the mouth-watering scents of brisket, pulled pork and peanut butter chicken float in the air.

The lingering traces of cigarette smoke actually complement the smells from the nearby food trucks that make the area one of many lunch options for River North’s corporate crowd.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. almost every day, food trucks line Kingsbury Street, offering a variety of midday meals. These range from barbecue, to sliders, sausages to mac and cheese, cupcakes and frozen yogurt for dessert, and even vegan options for those so inclined.

Chicago’s food truck owners say there is a certain level of camaraderie among them that can only be explained by their shared mission: get the food they love to cook out to the people. By making gourmet food options more accessible and affordable to people in every demographic, food truck owners enrich Chicago’s food scene.

“Chicago has a very vibrant food scene. It needs to be a little bit more egalitarian. Not everyone can afford to go to Next, or Alinea – one of the best restaurants in the nation - or Trotters, or Sunda and all these different places,” said food truck owner Joaquin Soler. “Folks need to be able to try some different things. People need more options. Chicagoans in particular deserve more options.”

Soler is the owner of the Brown Bag Lunch Truck, which serves barbecued meats smoked for hours before hand, and sides like curry-kissed potato salad, spicy elotes – Mexican corn on the cob -- and toasted garlic rice.

Twitter is the primary social media tool food truck owners use to let diners know where they will be, and what they will be offering, in real time.

As Soler puts it, tweeting provides simple communication, where feedback – both compliments and critiques – are archived in an open forum. It’s the best form of PR and advertising, all in one place.

Soler launched his business just before summer of 2011. He previously worked as a chef and line cook, as a culinary instructor and most recently in the corporate world of food. But this well-spoken, informed man said number were not for him.

“I am by no means a corporate guy, and there was just no outlet for my creativity left in that environment,” Soler said. “There are only so many things you can do with numbers.”

Discovering the “insane” food truck scene on a 2010 trip to Austin, Texas, seemed to provide the perfect vehicle for his creative aspirations. In just three days, Soler hit 30 food trucks, sampling food from each one, and talking to owners about how they ran their businesses. One truck stood out in particular: Franklin’s Barbecue.

“The quality of the food was just unbelievable, and for it to be coming out of a truck…” Soler recalled. “The concept was great too – barbecue. I thought it would be a great fit to how food trucks have to operate in Chicago.”

Current Chicago ordinances prevent street vendors from setting up shop within 100 feet of traditional food service establishments, and within 200 feet of a restaurant with the same concept. Food trucks must also prepare their food at a commercial, licensed kitchen, pre-package and label their food, and hold it at the appropriate temperature from packaging to the point of sale.

Soler said he thought that barbecue would provide food that many types of people would be drawn to.

“The customers have probably been the most striking and surprising thing about this business,” he said. “We’ve got suits, executives, clerks, custodial workers, blue-collar people. Every walk of life, coming to enjoy the food.”

Nida Rodriguez is the owner of The Slide Ride. Her truck sells gourmet mini-burgers, or sliders. She identified with Soler in how they started their businesses in Chicago.

“I love to cook, and I wanted to start my own business,” Rodriguez said. “A food truck requires less capital than opening a restaurant, so I thought it would be the perfect way to enter the food industry.”

She also likes to experiment with food, but her ideas manifest in the form of a mini-burger, providing top notch ingredients and flavors while also being quick and easy to eat.

“I really like exploring different cuisines and ethnicities with our sliders,” Rodriguez said. “I do that by putting in on bread as a sandwich.”

Each food truck owner’s unique take for food on-the-go contributes to the overall Chicago food scene, which Soler has seen change over the years.

“Chicago street food used to be a big part of the culture. But it stopped I want to say in the late 1980’s when Mayor Daley took over,” Soler said. “If I recall correctly there were food carts all up and down State St. when it was still closed to the regular traffic. Once they opened that back up, all the carts went away. There just hasn’t been a place like that since.”

Brown Bag Lunch has also had to adapt in the way they engage with customer to get feedback, and promote their food. The company, like many other food trucks, have a strong presence on Twitter and Facebook, to let customers know when and where they’ll be stopping, as well as what items they will be serving that day. Soler did not take to Twitter easily, preferring to write in proper long form without needing to indicate tone – but he said being succinct and emotional online has really helped grow the business.

“The other thing I found out about Twitter is that it’s not the single most important things. Yes, there are customers that want to engage you in that way, but now at least, for me, the folks that I get are walk-ups, essentially,” Soler said. “It’s foot traffic, it’s word of mouth. You have a lot of people who are really into food that aren’t necessarily plugged into social media. You need to reach them however you can.”

Soler said that this interaction is what he always wanted when he worked back-of-the-house, in his chef days. He wasn’t able to get it then, but he has definitely met some “very cool individuals” by running this business every day, on the street.

“Food is one of those common denominators for people,” he said. “Often times when you find out you like the same food, you’re bridging some kind of gap there. There’s a closeness there that you wouldn’t have had before.”

Soler plans to expand his business eventually, from smoking meats at 3 a.m. and selling them at lunchtime, to possibly converting his commercial kitchen and café into a brick-and-mortar establishment.  But right now, one of his most important goals is to get a new Chicago Food Truck ordinance passed. 

“Talk to your aldermen,” he said. “Food trucks will give the city a lot more tax revenue – God knows the city needs it. And we’ll provide a lot more jobs for people. And that’s just the bottom line. It’s a necessary part of this scene.”

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