The first week of 2012 isn't even over, but already a shocking number of restaurants have closed, including One Sixtyblue and Crust. But it's the announcement of Gaztro-Wagon's hiatus that seems to raise the most questions. It's hard not to be concerned about what's next for Chicago's food truck scene.
Matt Maroni's Gaztro-Wagon was one of the pioneering food trucks, and Maroni himself was a vocal advocate for overturning Chicago's extraordinarily restrictive food truck laws. For a few months last fall, it seemed that he, along with Phillip Foss (Meatyballs Mobile), had mobilized enough political support for some kind of action. But those plans appear to be on hold for now.
It's seems painfully obvious to point out that Chicago will never have a serious food truck scene until local laws change. Currently, everything is stacked up against them: owners can't park within 200 feet of a restaurant or stay out late to feed hungry bar goers. Combine those issues with Chicago's notoriously cold winter, and it makes sense many are closing up shop for at least the season.
But the biggest issue is that food trucks can't cook on board. This is an issue for owners, who have to cook at kitchens and then transport the food in hot boxes, and, perhaps more importantly, for the food, which isn't prepared to order for customers. Basically, chefs have more costs because they have to find a licensed kitchen to cook in, and the food suffers as it is transported around town.
From talking with various food truck owners over the past year, cooking on board has been the number one issue. (Most have plans to install kitchens on board almost immediately once the laws change.) And while there are legitimate concerns about allowing trucks to roam and park anywhere, it's seems increasingly difficult to make it a good business with the current laws.
Reading Maroni's interview with Eater and Foss's own blog entry about Meatyball's end, the one thing that comes up again and again is exhaustion. To make it in this environment requires some kind of crazed passion and loads of hard work. It's sad to see that both Maroni and Foss—two especially inspired and motivated guys—couldn't find a sustainable model.
Here's hoping this is just more of a speed bump along the way, and less of a dead end.