Food trucks are rolling into the western suburbs, offering convenience, diverse cuisine and a fun, upbeat vibe
It’s not hard to see why food trucks and mobile eateries have become a popular presence across the suburban landscape. The brightly colored vehicles with appealing graphics and the mouthwatering bites they dish out enhance the appeal of local festivals, add a novel touch to private parties, and complement taprooms, microbreweries and other businesses that don’t offer food service of their own.
“There is something about food trucks that creates excitement,” says Marissa Amoni, manager of Aurora Downtown, which hosts an annual food truck festival that is one of the largest in the western suburbs. Since its debut in 2016, the event has grown — last year attracting 10,000 people to enjoy a block-party atmosphere, complete with live music and fare from more than two dozen trucks.
So just who are these restaurateurs of the road, what prompted them to get in the food truck business, and how have they been received by local food aficionados? Read on for the inside scoop on how the growing “street food” phenomenon has made significant inroads in the western suburbs.
A Diverse Group
A commodities trader, a culinary school graduate, a businessman in recovery, an accomplished home cook — owners of food trucks have backgrounds and stories as diverse as their fare. What they have in common, however, is a passion for food and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Dave Spoerl, owner of Dave’s Slow Food, a food truck and catering business based out of Elburn, launched his venture in 2012 after completing treatment for alcohol addiction. The former executive had always enjoyed searching out unique local foods while traveling for work, and even managed to convince owners of some of his favorite places to share their recipes and expertise. Spoerl has made helping others through food and monetary donations a key part of his mission — along with cooking and serving tasty barbecued meats and side dishes at public and private events throughout the western suburbs. “As I’ve been blessed, I can bless,” he says. “The one thing I always have is food, so if a group comes to me with a tight budget or no budget, that’s where I serve.”
Justin Brooks and Alicia McCauley, co-owners of Elgin-based Perk N’ Pickle are fairly new to the food truck and catering game. They are starting their second season serving up freshly made specialties, including a chuck/brisket burger, hand-cut fries, grilled brie, mashed-potato eggrolls and more. Both have extensive business experience, working both for themselves and others, and McCauley, an accomplished home cook, had long thought of pursuing a career in the food industry. “We both wanted a restaurant down the road at some point,” says Brooks, “but our interest was piqued when we saw food trucks becoming more popular.”
Laura Pekarik started her Cupcakes for Courage food truck business in May 2011 after being inspired by her sister Kathryn’s battle with cancer. During that time, the sisters baked a lot as a pleasant distraction from and to help raise funds for Kathryn’s treatments. “It was just for fun at first, but once she was in remission, I realized it was time to go back to my other job or pursue my passion for baking,” Pekarik recalls.
Pekarik has a business degree, but loves the creative outlet baking provides. She perfected her creations through trial and error. Among her top-selling cupcakes are the Pink Velvet and Survivor (funfetti cake topped with rainbow buttercream). From the beginning, her business has made giving back part of its mission, and she continues to contribute a percentage of her proceeds to cancer research and other charities.
By day, North Aurora resident Brenton Stafford is a commodities trader, but on weekends, Friday through Sunday, he assumes the role of pizza maker, operating Crust Culture, a mobile wood-fired pizza company. He and his wife, Colleen, got Crust Culture underway in 2017 after the former city dwellers and self-professed “foodies” moved to the suburbs. “We’ve always had a passion for really good food, especially pizza,” says Brenton. “We didn’t get into the food truck game because we loved food trucks, we got into it because we love pizza.”
Before he started The Roaming Hog, which specializes in “pork-centric” dishes, Naperville resident Eddie Aguilar had studied culinary arts and worked at several restaurants. “It developed into a passion,” he says. “As I had helped many other restaurants and chefs (achieve) their dreams, I wanted to enjoy my own dream also.”
After evaluating the cost of opening a restaurant, Aguilar decided a food truck would be the perfect vehicle for his business. After purchasing and retrofitting an old library truck and refining his concept, he hit the road in early 2016. Though the truck has won accolades for pork items, including its Asian burger, the menu is ever-changing and includes other proteins and vegetarian options. “I love to explore different flavors from different countries or regions,” he says.
Nestor Fortini is the owner of the truck Grumpy Gaucho, which is affiliated with the Montgomery storefront restaurant. The colorful truck can be spotted over the summer months at area farmers markets as well as festivals, microbreweries and private events throughout DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will Counties.
“I wanted to do what I love,” says Fortini, “I also wanted to introduce Argentine cuisine to the American palate.” Grumpy Gaucho serves baked (not fried) empanadas and homemade chimichurri with all-fresh ingredients.
Dan Hattori and his cousin Eric Hattori grew up with an appreciation for Asian street food shaped by Eric’s childhood experiences eating at Bangkok food stalls and Dan’s frequent visits to Malaysian night markets during a college internship. They parlayed their culinary interests into a thriving food truck business, Piko Street Kitchen, which they started in 2014.
The business moniker combines the names of Eric’s parents — mother, Piya, and father, Hiko — and the recipes are Piya’s creations. The mobile eatery serves up rice bowls, tacos, sliders and more, with an Asian twist. “We use traditional Asian flavors in a different way,” Dan explains.
The Schaumburg-based Toasty Cheese Restaurant Group got its start when Greg Barnhart, owner and director of operations, conceived of opening a restaurant where he could work alongside his children. However, he wanted to focus on a family favorite — grilled cheese sandwiches — and wasn’t sure if that was a good fit for a brick-and-mortar establishment. Thus, the Toasty Cheese Truck was born in 2012 and eventually the group has grown to encompass several trucks offering a variety of fare.
“We started with one Toasty Cheese truck, then we got a second truck,” says Barnhart. “Then people were asking for tacos and barbecue.” Barnhart was able to acquire a barbecue truck and a taco truck from friends looking for a change of pace and he used those to launch Toasty Taco and Best Truckin’ BBQ. Due to launch this summer is the Crave Bar truck, which will offer gourmet chocolate-dipped ice cream treats.
While food trucks cost far less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant — making them an attractive alternative for those seeking to jump-start their culinary careers — they do require a substantial investment, most of it to buy and outfit a truck, which can range from $50,000 to $100,000 and beyond.
Some might retrofit an existing rig, while others choose to invest in a new customized truck or trailer. The Staffords, for example, custom-built their one-of-a-kind trailer, which features a pizza oven imported from Italy. Customers can watch their pizzas being made from start to finish, and the high-heat oven cooks each creation in about 90 seconds.
Brooks and McCauley spent more than a year studying the market before purchasing a new 22-ft trailer and building their own mobile kitchen. Brooks advises those starting out to get the best equipment they can. “I did not expect investing $150,000 into a truck and trailer, but it’s worth it. If you do it right and buy quality, you will be happier. You don’t want broken equipment to keep you from an event.”
In addition to equipment, food, supply, and staffing costs, other expenses include securing a place to store and clean the truck, renting a commercial kitchen or space in a commissary kitchen (a health department requirement) and paying all the applicable permit fees needed for operation. The latter can be cumbersome and costly, as different permits, licenses and fees are required by each suburban county and sometimes individual towns as well.
The suburbs are more food-truck friendly than Chicago, which has a “proximity rule” that limits food trucks from operating within 200 feet of the front door of any restaurant or convenience store and also requires food truck owners to pay for and install a GPS tracking device. In fact, in its 2018 report, “Food Truck Nation,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called out Chicago as being one of the more difficult places in the country to operate a food truck.
Those in the industry are working with suburban municipalities to develop clearer zoning and permit rules that don’t leave food trucks to operate in a gray area. St. Charles, for example, in mid-April approved a zoning amendment that specifies rules for food trucks.
Challenges and Rewards
In addition to navigating the permit process, dealing with unpredictable area weather, staffing a seasonal business and trouble-shooting equipment can present challenges to food truck owners.
Those in the business say it’s a job that demands hard work and dedication. “I’ve worked harder at this than anything else I’ve ever done,” Brooks says. “But the rewards outweigh that. When someone tells you it’s the best burger they’ve ever had or you get a catering booking at a festival, there’s nothing better!”
Owners must also have an extensive skill set and the ability to think on their feet. “I do pretty much all the shopping/cleaning/prepping/booking and much more,” says Aguilar. “It’s not easy at times, but when I hear the great reviews, it’s all worth it!”
Working with kitchen equipment not designed to be mobile calls for innovation and flexibility. “You need to be able to adapt when things don’t work the way you want,” Hattori points out.
For Aguilar, having the flexibility to experiment is one of the reasons he loves the business. “You can try something different and see how people react,” he says. He aims to expand into desserts this summer, adding an orange-and-cream-colored 1966 milk truck that will feature soft-serve ice cream and coffee.
Some of the other benefits to having a food truck include the ability to build a following with lots of different clients in different towns and the opportunity to interact directly with customers.
Though having a dedicated location remains a “someday” dream for some food truck owners, others are content with mobility. Some have found a way to combine both. Pekarik, for one, now operates two trucks as well as two Courageous Bakery Cafes, one in Elmhurst and the other in Oak Park. Though the trucks remain focused on cupcakes, the cafes serve other pastries, as well as breakfast and lunch items.
For Fortini at Grumpy Gaucho, the challenges lie in the “eternal amount of paperwork” that includes permits, certificates of insurance and constantly changing tax rates. Often with more event requests than one truck can handle, he feels constantly on the run, but enjoys being his own boss and working at this own pace. While he often goes without eating when he has a crowd to feed, he finds his reward in happy repeat customers.
Collaboration Breeds Success
Though some traditional restaurant owners fear food trucks taking a bite out of their businesses, studies have shown the reverse to be true. Amoni has seen that during the Aurora festival. “It’s a busy night for downtown restaurants as well,” she says. “We advertise them on the map to give people options.”
Places that don’t serve food, such as local craft breweries with taprooms, rely on food trucks and other mobile eateries as a way to provide their patrons with something to eat along with their drinks. Food truck partnerships with park districts, churches and other local businesses pull traffic to those locations.
Some restaurateurs have even found that collaboration between the two type of dining establishments can be positive. For example, last summer at Nosh Restaurant in Geneva, which is open for breakfast and lunch service only, owner Michael Dixon held several evening events that allowed patrons to enjoy food truck fare in combination with craft cocktails sold by his restaurant.
While food truck-themed events are on the rise (see page 32), fairs and local festivals are also seeking out food trucks in lieu of or in combination with other food vendors. “A lot of the festivals that traditionally have tents set up for food are switching to food trucks because they can just roll in, set up and leave — no cleanup or hassle,” Barnhart notes.
And most food truck owners say the more the merrier when it comes to events. As Barnhart observes, “Multiple trucks together do better than one by itself.”
Some in the industry would like to see the suburbs develop designated parks where a rotating group of food trucks could set up shop, similar to those found in other towns, including Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Portland and many others. Spoerl is currently working with a West Chicago business owner to make that happen, hopefully this summer.
“A food truck garden in the suburbs would do tremendous business,” says Aguilar. “People love food trucks and it would be great if there was a hub for them.”
For Stafford, the best part of the business is the social interaction with customers and the instant feedback on his food. “It doesn’t feel like work to me — we were at a wedding Saturday, and there was a group of people gathered around at all times, just eating and chatting.”
Barnhart concurs. “When you work so hard to produce food that you care about, it’s really cool when you get feedback. With food trucks, you tend to have a lot of fans, and they follow you (on social media) and get enthusiastic about it.”
“There’s nothing like giving hospitality and getting smiles and attaboys in return,” Spoerl observes. “Food trucks are all about innovation, variety and a passion for food.”Edit Module