Editor's Note: This won't come as a huge shock, but Chicago has a slightly frustrating food truck scene, mostly due to strict regulations from the city. But there are still people out there trying to make delicious things happen. Today, I am pleased to introduce Carol Hilker, who will be interviewing one of those owners every other week. First up is Joe Scroggs from The Roost. Take it away, Carol!
Born and raised in a little town outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina called Pittsboro (population 3,743), Joe Scroggs learned everything he knows about Southern cooking from his family. "Most of the recipes that are on our truck originate from not just my father and his mother, but also from my other side's grandmother," Scroggs says. "The fried chicken and the biscuits are the big things I learned, and it's not so much the ingredients, it's really how to do it."
The down-home menu for Scroggs's food truck, The Roost, is short and simple. The rotating weekly menu features his family's recipes for American comfort staples like pimento mac 'n' cheese topped with bread crumbs from day-old biscuits, chicken and pork Brunswick stew, homemade lemonade, paprika-garnished potato salad, a fresh cucumber coleslaw, and southern treats like homemade peach cobbler. But the two items that will never leave the menu, Scroggs says, are the buttermilk biscuits and the fried chicken. The chicken, Scroggs explains, is marinated in a bath of buttermilk for about 30 hours. "I have chopped onions diced and minced garlic, herbs and spices for each of the different flavors—that's just the marinade we use. It's important to get the meat right."
The Roost makes regular stops Monday through Friday, with the occasional Saturday, usually between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at designated locations. The best way to find Scroggs' route is to follow him on Twitter or Facebook. The Roost also posts its weekly schedule on its homepage.
What brought you to Chicago? I was living in Oakland for a year and working for Mayor Dellums's office. One of my last tasks in the mayor's office was writing a letter to every family that had a teenager who was murdered. So after that I decided it wasn't for me anymore. I was driving back across the country to North Carolina and stopped in Chicago to visit some friends who I went to school with in South Carolina. I fell in love with the city. I went home, packed a bag, and moved here with a one-way ticket. I slept on some couches for a while until I figured it out, and that was three or four years ago now.
What did you do before owning a food truck? I actually worked at a marketing company, and I handled our food service business. We did a lot of consumer research on flavor trends, profiles, and stuff like that for the food service market, and I ended up heading department for our company. So coming into this, I was privy to a lot of great research on flavors and trends.
Of your two flavors of chicken, herb or spicy, which is your favorite?
I actually get that question a lot. I've had people voting for their favorite on Twitter, but I stay out of it. The herb is what I started with, and that's my favorite I guess. The spicy has been, by large, the most popular.
What is the trick to making perfect fried chicken? Getting the meat right is the most important thing. I think that is something a lot of fried chicken lacks. In most cases, the skin is very good; Good and crispy and everything like that, but the meat doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own. Ours has the perfect balance.
How about biscuits? Any family secrets you can share for making perfect southern biscuits? Well, you can't really shock people with ingredients. Flour, buttermilk, butter, and a couple of other things, but it's really how you prepare them. You have to treat them super delicately, barely handling it, or else they get pretty dry. You're certainly not going to roll it out, or knead it, otherwise you get tough biscuits. It's basically, flip it out of the pan, spread it flat, and cut it. As long as you do that, your biscuits are going to come out pretty good.
How long did it take you, from start to finish, to get the truck off the ground and running? I actually had sort of a leg up in one area. My father is a mechanic and owns his own shop in North Carolina, so we were able to do all the work on the truck between the two of us in his shop. That took about a month to get it to where it is now. As far as navigating the city for licensing and everything that went into that, I'd say about three months. I had been planning it for nine months to a year before I quit my job.
Where do you see The Roost in five years? I'm not sure. It really depends on how the food truck movement in Chicago goes. If it becomes a situation where I can potentially grow, then I want to do that. If not, I'll have to figure out how to cut loose into other avenues. I have been trying to build a brand around the food, or at the very least, what we bring to the table. If that develops into other channels, then we'll have to explore that as well. But I love the trucks, and I think it's a great opportunity for the city. A lot of other cities have a really great scene for it, and we should, too. Being Chicago, the leader of the food innovators, I think there is really an opportunity for us to have one of the best. So hopefully, we can make that happen.