By Christine Li
Though Chicago is the third largest city in the nation and has long held a place of pride in introducing new cuisines and fresh flavors to the rest of the country, it is today far behind much smaller cities in exploiting the innovative potential offered by mobile food. What can ordinary Chicagoans do about this? We're reaching out to activists, vendors, and scholars working to bring a more vibrant food culture all over the country to understand the most fundamental issues obstructing reform and how we here in the Windy City can fight against them.
May 21, 2012
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2008, Kristin was working at a regular nine to five job in marketing and advertising downtown. Longtime Chicago Bear fans, she and her boyfriend Greg were also regulars at the Bear's tailgates in their downtime. Greg, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from Marquette University, had became something of a legend with the tailgate crowd at Soldier Field with his specialty, homemade schnitzels, throughout the years.
So when he lost his job last year, the couple noticed the increasing popularity of food trucks around the country and
Kristin and Greg with the
saw an opportunity to introduce some crispy German pork sandwiches to their hometown--hence the birth of Chicago Schnitzel King.
We met Kristin and Greg at the My Streets My Eats Conference last month, where they were fielding a steady stream of hungry attendees at lunch. Greg, a terse, efficent operator, barely skipped a beat or varied his voice as he handed a free sandwich to a customer who came back to complain of a mustarded one he had mistakenly been given. Kristin, the marketing guru and self-described "creative" of the team on the other hand, was a bubbly presence, chatting up customers, bystanders, and what have you, in a deep hearty voice puntuated by ready laughter. We talked with her about her journey from Greg's tailgate Turano attendent to becoming Chicago's first mobile schnitzel entrepreneur.
MSME: Did you guys have any connections in the food/restaurant business?
Kristin: Our connections stem from my family's background in the meat packing industry. My grandpa started a meat business instead of graduating from college with a buddy of his, and has been in the business ever since. His title now is "Independent Food Service Professional." He is in his late 70s...don't know his official age! He is also now one of Greg’s mentors. He loves to give him his subscriptions to "The Producers Connection"-- the nation's veal newspaper.
Kristin: That we definitely figured out on our own, especially as it related to operating a food truck in Chicago. That's a completely different ballgame. The tailgates inspired us: we saw how popular the sandwiches were, although we knew there would be obstacles selling them off the truck because they wouldn't be fresh like they were at the tailgate. First step is the introductory meeting with city hall to review what licensing and permits are required and what the process is to attain those licenses and permits.
MSME: Hilarious! So you knew about putting together the product—what about the mechanics of opening a service business?
Kristin: That we definitely figured out on our own, especially as it related to operating a food truck in Chicago. That's a completely different ballgame. The tailgates inspired us: we saw how popular the sandwiches were, although we knew there would be obstacles selling them off the truck because they wouldn't be fresh like they were at the tailgate.
First step is the introductory meeting with city hall to review what licensing and permits are required and what the process is to attain those licenses and permits.
MSME: Was there an official guideline?
Kristin: Nope. I don't believe so. I could be wrong but we couldn't find one.
MSME: So you pieced together what you needed to do just by calling city officials and asking around?
Kristin: No, we had to visit city hall, then ask. I don't think a phone call would suffice. But once we had our idea and our truck almost ready to go, that is when we visited city hall. It's so important to visit early and talk to those involved to find out exactly what's required.
MSME: But if there's no official protocol, how were they able to give you directions?
Kristin: Much of it is based off of the current ordinance, which is vague and elusive at best and hard to obtain sometimes; some officials also get the current ordinance and proposed ordinances confused and want something that isn't in the current ordinance, such as dimensions or pictures of the truck. It would be nice if they had an official protocol!
My advice is to persevere through it--I always heard the squeaky wheel gets the oil!
My advice is to persevere through it--I always heard the squeaky wheel gets the oil! We wouldn't have changed our decision though growing up in Chicago we know the city can be difficult.
MSME: What has been most surprising about being a small business owner here in the city and do you have any plans for expansion?
Kristin: The most surprising thing is how uninformed the general public is about food trucks in Chicago--a lot don't even know they exist. And yes, we have inspiration for expansion! Sales have been up and down but no matter what, the people we meet on the streets are terrific and add a lot of joy to the job!
MSME: Do your aspirations include brick and mortar as well?
Kristin: Yes, eventually...we are taking it in baby steps.
MSME: Well, I'm one of the many fans who are looking forward to that.
May 16, 2012
Sean is the founder and director of the Street Vendor Project in New York City, a nonprofit collective dedicated to "creating a vendor's movement for permanent change.
For us in Chicago, it is perhaps hard to fathom New York City as being a tough environment for street vendors. After all, can you imagine stepping into a busy City steet without being hit with the olfactory carnival of carts and trucks--the roasted oysters along Pearl Street shorelines, the mustard drenched knishes dished out from Sabrett carts, and what about that steaming Vietnamese pho handed through truck windows?
New York street food, as Urban Oyster’s Brian Hoffman details, has chronicled the shifting migrant constitution of the city from the very beginning.
this Vendor Power guide !
Despite this ingrained role in the city’s culinary landscape, street vendors became a target of crackdown during the 1990’s as part of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign. Though the campaign banded vendors and encouraged them to start formally organizing for their rights, to this day New York City vendors face the same persistent and powerful interests that lobby for their restriction.
Sean, who was a featured speaker at the IJ Clinic My Streets My Eats Symposium and Meetup in Chicago, spoke to us about some of these pressures and how SVP has been able to mobilize the community to rally against them.
The harder part is to get vendors motivated to work on the bigger systemic problems. That’s what community organizing is all about.
The bureaucracy has incredible inertia. And, elected officials are usually not predisposed to support vendors.
Regular people who love street food can help. The easiest way is by just talking to your local vendor about the issues and offering your support.