I have visited Chicago a number of times over the years and have always really enjoyed all that the city has to offer. Nevertheless, in the nearly 2 years that I've been making frequent road trips to different cities to visit food trucks, I have not made it to Chicago. Yet! But, as in all of the cities (now over 875) that we list on Foddtrucksin.com, I do try to keep up with the food truck culture as much as I can in as many cities as possible.
As an example, even before we launched FoodTrucksIn.com, I read a number of articles and reports about food trucks, the cities they operate in, and the economic and political environments in which they do business. One of the first articles I read was, Chicago Food Trucks Steer Around Legal Speedbumps on www.mobile-cuisine.com.
With that in mind, I contacted Leah, the owner of the Babycakes food truck in Chicago to learn more about her unique food truck and get her perspective on operating her business in Chicago. She's been operating there since April of 2012
Here's what I learned.
Eric: Leah, you are sole proprietor of the Babycakes truck. Were you working in food service before you started the truck?
Leah: No, I worked in an office in sales. I just had a crazy inspiration one day to start a pancake food truck. There were only about a dozen trucks operating in Chicago at the time. I found two food trucks available for sale, on Craig's List. I bought one within 2 weeks from a former police officer.
Eric: And, that was the beginning of Babycakes!
Leah: For better or worse, or a little of both, I bought the truck within two weeks of the original idea and my life has never been the same!
Eric: Did you do a lot of work to the truck yourself?
Leah: I have done a lot of work to it; my truck is middle aged, having been factory-born in 1975.
Eric: Were you a customer of food trucks before you opened yours?
Leah: I had only visited one food truck - Taqueria Fusion.
Eric: How did you come up with the name?
Leah: I was just brainstorming my concept. Mini gourmet pancakes... I originally was going to call it Elegant Stacks, but then I thought of Babycakes... phew!
Eric: What date did the first truck first go on the road to serve customers? Do you remember your very first customer?
Leah: April 2012. I don't remember the first customer, but could never forget that horrible day. The truck literally caught on fire and broke down on the way to the event, and broke down again at the end of the event!
Eric: That sounds awful. Do you mind sharing more details?
Leah: The truck caught fire because of a tiny and simple problem - the cords for the inverter were poorly designed, hanging right above the power source. During the drive, the dangling cords smashed up against the circuit box and caught fire. My truck driver noticed smoke rising from the back (I was following behind) and literally jumped out of the truck, as it was driving, thinking the entire truck was on fire. Luckily, he was driving slowly down a side street and the truck rolled forward without hitting anything, finally stopping at a curb safely so we could figure out the problem. We turned off the circuit box and cleaned up and soldiered on for the day!
Eric: WOW! That's crazy! OK, now share something fun and exciting!
Leah: We booked an event for a film production and of course it was veiled in secrecy. When we showed up it turned out that star actress, Mila Kunis, had paid for pancakes for the entire crew! She came up and ate one of everything... bacon, cheese, steak, syrup... the whole nine yards! She was adorable and sweet, and hungry, so a great customer! She told me that she had "read all my reviews online", which I think is a hilarious thing for an actress to tell a food truck owner.
Eric: How much has mobile food vending in Chicago changed in the past couple of years?
Leah: It has changed a lot because the update to the mobile ordinance (cooking on trucks is now legal for licensed trucks) has attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of new trucks have opened. But not enough has changed! The support from the city and the lack of public knowledge about the industry has remained rather an ongoing issue.
Eric: What do you expect the food truck scene to look like in Chicago in 3 years?
Leah: It's hard to say... for a while I was very optimistic about the food truck scene growing here, but the issues haven't changed much. The weather sucks and the "climate" isn't any better for small businesses. It is simply a very tough city to operate a business in. In my dream world, the laws would be changed and food trucks would be able to operate and compete fairly on city streets without harassment.
Eric: If things do not change in Chicago would you ever consider moving to another city?
Leah: Absolutely. My boyfriend and I are both from California, so we constantly bemoan the Chicago food truck scene and wonder how much greener the theoretical grass would be if we moved back to California.
Eric: What percentage of time does your truck do street service, catering, and events?
Leah: I'd say we do about half and half. In the winter, we do more random street stops, and in the summer more private catering and special events. I read a national food truck study that said that most food truck owners consider their truck street stops to be just advertising for the private bookings they do and I have to agree completely - without private and corporate catering, we would have never survived this long. Street stops just don't do it.
Eric: How would you describe your food?
Leah: Gourmet, creative breakfast food like you've never seen before!
Eric: Do you consider yourself a breakfast truck or a lunch and dinner truck that serves breakfast?
Leah: The concept of my company is to serve gourmet breakfast 24/7. So we are all of the above! We are a breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, or late night truck and catering company. We can serve for any meal type, at any time! For instance, just this weekend, we served a corporate breakfast, a wedding breakfast-for-dinner for 300 people, and a brewery for late night snacks!
Eric: How often do you offer specials or change your menu?
Leah: I change the menu almost every day. Sometimes I see other trucks that have had the same 4 or 5 items (and nothing else!) on their menu for years and I feel jealous of how easy it must be for them to plan, and shop, and work. Other times I scoff at how boring their menus are! I love using seasonal ingredients, inspiration, and late night magic to make incredible new recipes to serve on our truck.
I literally can and will make anything, if I get a great idea or some fancy ingredient to work with!
Eric: Do you ever come up with new pancake menu items from customer suggestions? Is there a particular one you can share?
Leah: Sure! I have created over 250 recipes at this point, so there isn't much we haven't tried, but of course customers often have suggestions as well. One of our best customers suggested "white velvet", which inspired me to create a white chocolate pancake with powdered sugar glaze. Another customer suggested Frito Chile pie pancakes, which I haven't worked on yet, but sounds awesome (and I've already bought the Fritos!).
Eric: Those both sound great! Is there a food truck that you have not eaten at that you would like to try?
Leah: I've heard great things about Lunchbox but haven't had a chance to eat from their truck yet.
Eric: Thanks Leah! I am looking forward to meeting you in person and trying your food sometime soon.
You can learn more about Babycakes and visit them in and around Chicago at http://www.foodtrucksin.com/babycakes
Coffee n Donuts: Coffee Pancakes with a Mini Mocha Glazed Doughnut and Caramel-Mocha Dipping Sauce