Lake: Southern Mac and Cheese Truck Moves Approach Indoors
By Alana Voldman and Laura Wilson
The Red Line Project
Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011
Chicago just got cheesier -- with gourmet mac and cheese, prepared fresh daily from scratch. But consumers won't find it at the usual location -- a food truck -- but rather a new restaurant based off the popular Southern Mac and Cheese concept.
The Southern Mac and Cheese food truck opened a store front at 60 E. Lake Street in the Loop in early September. For those involved, it was a small business venture dream come true.
“I think once we realized we had an ample amount of business, we figured hey, why not, let’s give this a shot,” said Jason Draves, manager of the Southern Mac and Cheese Store.
The business started as the popular Southern Mac and Cheese Truck, which debuted last spring at the Willis Tower and sold out within 30 minutes on its first day.
Wicker Park based bar The Southern (1840 W North Ave.), which is affiliated with The Southern Mac, does not offer a weekday lunch menu. Chef Cary Taylor wanted to offer a daytime lunch alternative to patrons, so the food truck concept was born.
Draves and Taylor manage the store and collaborate on how to make the food that the restaurant serves. Taylor plans and prepares each week’s menu that will appear in the food truck and as well as specials in the store.
The Southern Mac and Cheese Truck started in February this year, as a way to give customers more options for lunch. Now with the store location, the Southern Mac business has a reliable and consistent supply of mac. Located at the intersection of State and Lake, the foot traffic is ideal and keeps people coming in. With the up-coming holidays, Taylor is confident that the business will bring in even more people.
“We bring the truck to the Loop a lot,” Taylor said, “We knew that we were going to be a lunchtime business, and there’s obviously no better place for lunchtime foot traffic.”
The store has brought in a variety of lunch-goers, all of whom have one thing in common – mac and cheese.
“We get a mixed, diverse crowd,” Draves said. “Anywhere from college kids, young, old- business has been great. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, a lot of foot traffic.”
The Southern Mac’s location near the intersection of State and Lake in the Theater District caters to shoppers off of Michigan Ave. and is close to several Chicago college campuses such as DePaul University, Columbia College, and Roosevelt. The food truck also ventures to areas with a lot of foot traffic.
Interactive map: Key locations for Chicago food trucks.
Draves says that the food for the truck was initially prepared at The Southern, since current mobile food laws prohibit vendors from cooking food on-site. The kitchen was small, though, and the crew needed more space to work since they was getting more catering orders.
“The food truck was growing so much, and we absolutely needed to branch off on our own,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s food suppliers come from all over the map. With a lot of the Southern Mac’s food coming from organic farms in the Midwest, including the Green City Market — something that Taylor says makes him proud.
Social media has also played an important role in advertising for the store and the truck. It’s free, and all of the Southern divisions utilize it accordingly.
The Southern Mac and Cheese store is not the only business in Chicago using social media to its advantage. Businesses such as The Vault, which operates its doughnut shop in the near North Side, keep their customers updated by using Twitter. just as the Southern Mac and Cheese truck does when they want to tell people about its current location.
According to Taylor, the difference is consistency.
“We update our sites several times throughout the day,” he said. “We get back to people on their feedback. We’re actually holding a contest right now where a customer gets to decide what special we will be having. It will be named after them, and people will vote. We’re trying to be interactive with Chicago.”
The Southern Mac will also be bringing in guest chefs in the future, including Graham Elliot, who will be creating his own version of mac and cheese for the restaurant.
Draves says that his favorite part about working at the store is Chicago’s “environment and the atmosphere…it’s what gets customers coming back, too.”
Despite the stressful parts of running a restaurant, Draves and Taylor say that the best parts of their jobs are the interactions with different people every day.
“We’re warm and inviting,” Draves explains. “And we’ve got some great employees.” The kitchen employees also confess that they enjoy working at the store under the direction of Chef Cary. “Having a fun environment makes the day go by fast,” said Jay Lovell, Taylor's right-hand man.
In addition to their new store, the restaurant has introduced a new bike delivery service on Nov. 1, which delivers within a one-mile radius of the store.
“The idea of the store is for people who are not able to get to the truck,” Draves said. “So many people wanted to have our mac and cheese for lunch, but they missed the truck, or it wasn’t in the neighborhood.”
The Southern Mac is an idea that plays off of Taylor’s roots. Growing up in Georgia and attending college in Texas, Taylor had first-hand experience with Southern recipes, including the staple macaroni and cheese. Taylor thought that this simple comfort meal would be the perfect idea for a food truck.
“We have a variety of mac and cheese dishes, and I’ve tried to play off of different spices and styles that I’ve picked up throughout the years,” Taylor said.