Author Heather Shouse Considers Chicago’s Place in the Food Truck Race

Three years ago, food writer Heather Shouse could see that food trucks were about to become the next big thing. Granted, the concept of guys selling traditional bites off bikes, carts, and rickshaws is no new thing; food has been peddled from vehicles in cities around the world for decades. But just a few years ago, bright-eyed and respectable young chefs around the country caught wind of the taco truck scene in Los Angeles and the formidable feast of chefs in Portland, and a new generation of street food vendors was born.

It was, as Shouse aptly describes it in a phone interview, a perfect storm. Following her nose for good stories, Shouse quit her job as Eat Out editor at Time Out Chicago and spent the following year testing dishes from hundreds of food trucks around the country. Her book, Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, came out with Ten Speed Press mid-April and is already on its second printing. Apparently, people like food trucks. We talked to Shouse about her year of magical eating and asked her why the Chicago food truck scene has some serious catching up to do. What inspired this book in the first place? My first exposure was in China, in 2007. I took a trip and was amazed by all of the dishes. I’d known about Portland having a crazy food cart scene and about the tons of taco trucks in LA. [In Chicago], we had Maxwell Street Market, which had a few good things but not exactly what I was looking for in terms of carts and trucks, people selling things off of all types of contraptions. I took a trip to Portland first and saw how many food carts there were, and then looked to LA and major cities and started doing online research. Why is now the moment for food trucks? When the recession hit, there were not a lot of restaurant openings and chefs were looking for different avenues. I was finding old-school street vendors, but I was also seeing these young, up-and-coming talented chefs embracing food trucks as a new model, an alternative to the traditional restaurant. The idea was to create a snapshot of time in food truck history in this country. I think the boom in cities is partly due to social media—Facebook and Twitter have really helped in cities where trucks are truly mobile. In some cities, however, it’s not really a factor, like in Portland where they don’t even move. It was a perfect storm in a way, people being more adventurous about what they eat. Food tourism is huge now. All the new shows that have done so well on the Food Network and Cooking Channel, usually involve travel around food.

And because people are more adventurous and have been exposed to other countries where eating street food is part of the norm, it’s broadening our horizon and has opened our eyes to a cultural norm that we otherwise think of as “dirty dogs” or “drunk tacos.” It helps that chefs have been acknowledged by the national food media. It validates it as an outlet. 2010 was the first year that Food & Wine gave a best new chef award to a food truck chef: Roy Choi of Kogi (a Korean taco truck chef in LA). Seeing how successful their business model was encouraged people to think “I can do this,” and the national food media and foodies aren’t going to look down on me. Are people actually turning much of a profit from food trucks? There’s some statistic from 2010 stating that a little more than 50 percent of restaurants that open close within five years. By that standard, it’s probably equally successful. For the most part, peoples’ acceptance of what constitutes success when they own a food truck is different than owning a restaurant. I met a couple who do it because they can run the business for six or seven months and spend four months out of the year traveling through Southeast Asia, living on $20 a day. It’s a different type of person. How many trucks did you visit for your research? A few hundred. I would say that there are around 100 in the book, with larger profiles for about 50. That was traveling nonstop [for about a year] and making multiple trips to some cities. There were days I would eat at 25 to 30 trucks in a day [in LA]. I had this rental car loaded up with Styrofoam boxes and tacos with a bite taken out of them. I’d park my car in downtown LA and unload all the containers. When I got up to go back to car the next day, they were all gone. What city surprised you most? Madison, Wisconsin. I was surprised that they had such diverse scene, so I ended up going with a map of that [in my book]. They have a food cart curator who selects their carts every year. A guy sets up this food cart review board every year, comprised of local writers and people who work for the city. They take notes and rank on a scale of 1-9 and the top 35 carts get a spot for next summer. Let’s play favorites. What’s the best food truck in the country right now? East Side King in Austin. It’s so fucking awesome. These guys are so good. It’s like Momofuku on wheels, with two chefs from Uchi + Uchiko doing really creative flavorful food with an Asian slant. It’s parked behind the Liberty on the east side, and you can buy a beer behind the bar. It’s a really cool late night scene and what food trucks should and can be. Hopefully Chicago will get some speed.

So Chicago’s clearly behind. What are the hurdles?Bringing the city officials and health inspectors who are in charge of rewriting codes and getting them up to speed on how it works in other cities. There are a lot of people, such as bigger restaurant groups, who oppose food trucks because they’re afraid it will hurt their business. They know people in Chicago and city officials are not familiar with food truck models and they use scare tactics to freak everyone out, saying it will cause litter, traffic congestion, and public urination. They can say whatever they want because no one really knows. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has voiced his support, saying that these guys will have to work out their differences. Now it’s just about proving to the city council that the opposition is big-business-driven. The more successful events we do—like the Food Truck Summit, which people enjoy— will show the city that food trucks are another part of the food service industry. We need to get up to speed if we want to consider ourselves a progressive food community. Shouse image

[Author Photo: Martha Williams]

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