Momentum on bringing sanctioned food trucks to the streets of Chicago has slowed to a crawl in recent months.
But all that changed this week when Big Star's planned truck unceremoniously failed health inspection, allegedly because cutting boards were spotted on the truck. As with everything in this entire debacle that is the Chicago food truck scene, it isn't exactly that simple, says Big Star Chef Justin Large.
What is a little more clear cut, though, is Large's intention to take the food truck out into the city anyway, fines be damned. In a single act of defiance, the Wicker Park restaurant has managed to get people talking about food trucks again, and not a moment too soon: The law is up for reconsideration again in the coming months.
To get a better understanding of what happened with the health inspector and how Big Star plans to change the city for the better, I gave Large a call.
Can you get everyone up to speed who isn't familiar with what happened? Is this really all over some cutting boards?
Justin Large: No, I'm not sure why everybody's latched onto the cutting-board thing. That has something to do with it, but it's a very minor part of the story. I don't know if David [Tamarkin] was trying to use that as a grander point or gesture, but that's not all there is to it. How familiar are you with the food-truck laws?
The issue is they want food to be prepared offsite, essentially.
Justin Large: Offsite, prepackaged, and there can not be touching or finishing of the food. There can be no dispensing of drinks. There's nothing. Everything is sealed and labeled. Basically you take money and hand somebody a package of something. At first a lot of people pushed back and said it had to be a public health issue, or something to that effect. But really, upon further discussion with the health department, they're fully in support of the law changing and things happening. Really, what a lot of it boils down to is a lot of push-back from brick-and-mortar restaurants for fear of competition and things of that nature.
But back to the cutting-board thing. We bought our truck and it was fully outfitted with cooking equipment. We bought it in anticipation of the law changing at the middle to the end of the summer. Obviously, that did not happen. So upon further discussion what we decided to do was retrofit with a lot of stainless steel counter tops to cover up and not make any of that equipment accessible or usable. In our truck we have a fryer, a griddle, a steam table, a hot-holding box, a big cold station, and all sorts of refrigeration, a freezer, etc., etc. It's a really great truck, and the possibilities on it are endless. Also, we have cutting boards as well. Someone said the city doesn't even want the potential of you prepping food on there, so the cutting-board commentary came from the fact that the health inspector came on the truck and immediately was like, "You can't have cutting boards because that basically declares your intent to handle and prepare food on there." Obviously the cutting boards are removable, it's not that big of a deal, but it's something a lot of reporters have latched onto.
But that could just be a symptom of what's really going on. The city really freaks out. You can't even have the potential to do anything on the truck. Essentially, they just want you to be a hot box on wheels.
What's interesting is you're saying the city really wants to change this law. As this issue has been unfolding, that's not at all how they've been depicted.
Justin Large: The city has been the fall guy for all this. I don't really think it's the city at all. I have no ill will towards the health department. They're just doing their job. I'm not angry at them for failing us. They are just reading the letter of the law and reacting accordingly. And the law is fairly explicit as far as what you can or can't do. I thought we had retrofitted the truck to follow the letter of the law but apparently not.
So what recourse do you have from here? What happens next? To be honest, I'm not all that familiar with the inspection process.
Justin Large: There really isn't one. We could rip all the equipment off the truck and go about retrofitting it further, and that's not really an option. Word on the street is the law comes up for vote in November. In lieu of the fact that the law may change soon, it doesn't really behoove us to rip a bunch of equipment, only to put it back on in a couple months. We're gonna wait and basically, everyone has latched onto the idea that we're going to go rogue. Which we are going to do.
There are a few detractors that are saying we're doing this to cut in line, to make a quick buck. To them I am saying we are actually doing these rogue runs and give away our food. To us, we're interested in forcing a conversation in the city and highlighting the current plight of the small-business person that wants to open up a truck and prepare food to order for customers.
What comes to mind is the whole Hot Doug's-foie gras thing. But I don't recall other restaurateurs getting upset at Doug Sohn for that. Do you?
Justin Large: I don't think so. I think there was much more widespread support for Doug than detractors. I've had people from both people on the coin. We've had anonymous comments on the boards, like, "You guys are just privileged babies who can't get your way." I'm actually really good friends with Matt Maroney, who I actually consider to probably be first in line. If there is such a thing. He's in full support of what we're doing. He's invited the truck to come out on Thursdays. He's like, "I'm so glad you guys are doing this. It forces the issue." Whereas the issue has kind of stalled out in recent months.
Well, I think you can make the case that if Doug didn't do what he did, then what happened wouldn't have happened.
Justin Large: Right, absolutely. At the very least, we're looking to get people talking. Whether they're bagging on us. They're at least talking about food trucks at that point.
I don't think you can get bad publicity though as far as food trucks go, because it's something everybody wants.
Justin Large: Right, right. And for those people who say, "Oh, we already have a vibrant food-truck scene..."
No, we don't.
Justin Large: We don't.
Go to Portland or any other city like that, and you see what these things can be.
Justin Large: Again, if you ask the majority of the food-truck people who are out there, they would prefer to be cooking to order instead of holding their food at 140 degrees in a hot box for an unknown amount of time. Not that they're just trying to follow the letter of the law, and I totally applaud that, and that's great, but we have the ability to buck the system a little bit. So we're going to do that. Hopefully for the greater good: To get a law passed so there's more flexibility, so free enterprise starts to flourish a bit. The whole brick-and-mortar argument, to me, I feel like it would be the dumbest business plan in the world to take our food truck and part it outside of, say, Arturo's, and go try to sell tacos to people who are going to Arturo's to buy tacos. It just seems dumb. We're not looking to capitalize off anybody. The great thing about food trucks is you can take them anywhere. And there's already laws in the books where you can't park a truck within 250 feet of any sort of retail food establishment, and that includes 7-Eleven. From a competition standpoint, I'm not seeing it. I thought this was a capitalist society and we're all about free enterprise here. But if it's brick-and-mortar pushing back because they're worried about people sniping their business? To that I say may the best man win.
That's how the market works.
Justin Large: Exactly. We're going to follow the law. We're not going to park in front of a restaurant and try to get their business. But we will go down to Fulton Market and try to get some of the Big Star tacos out to the factory workers who can't go up to Big Star for lunch.
I don't know if you can even go into this, but as far as going rogue, how will that work? Are you just going to show up at places? Are you going to announce it in advance?
Justin Large: We're not going to tip our hand. Even though we are prepared to be fined, we would like to avoid being fined. I would say to watch our social media, and we will get the word out via those channels. But it'll probably be about 15 minutes before we open the doors and start giving tacos away.
How can people support the food-truck movement and help get things changed?
Justin Large: If you're in support of the law, get in touch with your alderman and the mayor's office. Start making your opinion known, because the more public support we have, the more the aldermen know that the people of Chicago, their constituency, wants this. We're gonna have a lot easier time of changing the law and pushing it through city council. At our rogue runs we're going to be handing out lists of all 50 aldermen and how to get in touch with them.
If this doesn't change things, what do you think it'll take to finally get food trucks in Chicago?
Justin Large: I'd like to believe that the law will eventually change. That we as a city will become enlightened enough to realize it's a big enough city for everybody to exist and that there's enough customers for everyone. Ultimately I think the law will change, we're just hoping to maybe move it along a little faster and provide a spark and a fire that seems to be on its embers a little bit.
Because can't these trucks create new jobs?
Justin Large: Exactly. You look at Chicago, it's got an 11 percent unemployment rate, and the trucks represent a great way for the small-business men -- the start-up costs are low, it's a great way for people to get their foot into the industry. Each truck is going to employ anywhere from five to eight people, just because you have to prepare the food and then go out and physically cook and serve the food. You're looking at a very easy way to start addressing some of the employment issues in town by giving people jobs. You can also talk a little more high-mindedly in the fact that we have a lot of food deserts in this town, and there's a lot of issues with that. Doesn't a mobile restaurant represent an easy way to combat that stuff and get good food to those neighborhoods that don't have it.
That's what you would think.
Justin Large: That seems to be the logic, but there seems to be a very strong lobby in the other direction. It's just interesting, because we count ourselves as a real culinary epicenter, and it's amusing that at this point we're not keeping up with LA, Austin, New York, or Portland. Etc., etc. Evanston has a food truck that you can cook on, and so does Grand Rapids, Michigan, so why doesn't Chicago? [Laughs.]