If you've been outraged by the city's sluggish approach to approving fully functional food trucks for humans, consider this: The city has yet to have a single food truck aimed at feeding Chicago's barking citizens. That's about to change come May 7, when FidoToGo -- a new food truck specializing in gourmet dog snacks -- rolls up and opens for business for the first time at Bark In The Park, the Anti-Cruelty Society's 5K at Montrose Harbor.
It's clearly a niche idea. To get a better understanding of how this new business idea came about, its potential for growth, and how it's affected by the food-truck laws, Inc. Well gave FidoToGo Co-Founder Tracy Werner a call.
So how did you come up with this idea?
Tracy Werner: I've grown up with dogs, and I have another business I've been doing for another decade which is basically a health-food store for cats and dogs out in Wheaton. Dogs are on my brain all the time. I live with four dogs, and I usually have a foster dog from a shelter as well. And I'm a foodie, too, I like eating a lot. [Laughs.] I was watching a TV show on one of my days off and it was all about how to run a food truck, and I thought, "Oh, good grief. Dog-food truck!" I put those together.
How long ago was that?
Tracy Werner: That was actually end of January/early February, so not too long ago. I have a partner named Donna Santucci and she's a dog groomer I met through the industry -- she's been going around trying to open her own shop in the city. I knew I couldn't do this venture alone because of my previous commitments and I said to her, "If you still want to do a business in the city, we gotta do it, and we gotta do it now." She was all for it.
The whole food-truck thing is a real hot-button issue right now. I assume it doesn't really affect you guys, but does it?
Tracy Werner: It only does because no one knows how to label us. It's not food because according to the city of Chicago food is intended for human consumption. Basically we're street peddlers. You gotta get a peddler's license through the city. There's certain things that you can or cannot sell, and that's all in their rules and regs. Working with the city it was a little bit of a push to get them to understand this is not food for people. They said we needed to call the health inspector and we said, "No we don't." Then the health inspector came over and said, "No, they don't." [Laughs.]
A lot of people didn't know where to label us as far as the permits go. We hammered it out with them and figured out the peddler's license is how to go.
What is the process like to obtain a peddler's license?
Tracy Werner: You go through the city's business services department. It's an application and a fee of course -- anything with the city, there's a fee. There's a little interview process to figure out what you're doing. They don't want the peddlers to be nuisances obviously.
If the law here suddenly okayed food trucks, is there anything extra you guys would like to do?
Tracy Werner: It won't really impact us at all because we're not going to be baking the cookies or making the ice cream on the truck. All that's done off-site. We're taking it more as a mechanism to get healthy higher-end level snacks into dogs' mouths. There's a market: not everyone shops at boutique stores and not everyone shops at Walmart.
What other market research did you do after your initial inspiration?
Tracy Werner: Basically to see if anyone else is doing it. There's one truck in LA and then there was one in England that we saw. Which was kinda shocking. In my shop I had a woman who was visiting from Ireland and I talked to her about it. She was surprised too, "Usually people in England don't treat their dogs that well."
Do you know how long those other trucks have been running?
Tracy Werner: The one in LA is about a year, so it's still pretty new. They regularly hook up with the human food trucks, so there'll be a couple of them out in one location. Basically in Chicago there's very very few places you can go outside and have a drink or snack with your dog, too. Other places are much more liberal about those things. Eventually we'll befriend the human-food trucks too and see if we can partner up and make events out of things together. So you can get a snack and your dog can get a snack.
And then pets can join the fight to get human-trucks under less scrutiny.
Tracy Werner: Exactly.
If this turns out to be a huge success in Chicago, how would you like to expand your business?
Tracy Werner: Serving the suburbs as well, getting more trucks in our fleet. We have also been talking about franchising nationally. Every town's laws is every different, so that's going to be a stickier situation. My family in Wisconsin said they'd do it in a heartbeat. Our friends in Florida said the same thing, so there's definitely interest in it.