This month, Amy Le, the owner of Duck N Roll, celebrated one year on the road. Le admits that it's been a long journey in her quest to master the ins and outs of both Chicago's street food scene and the world of self-employment and entrepreneurship. But it's been a journey she has been proud to take.
The former Grub Hub marketing and PR guru took the leap last year to food truck owner and she says that although there have been challenges, she has never looked back.
Influenced by the time she spent cooking with her mother, Le brings those memories and flavors to life through her Vietnamese-inspired food truck. Specialties include duck gumbo, azuki bean cinnamon doughnuts, and usually three to four different bánh mìs (miso short rib, asian barbecue pork, Thai curry chicken, and vegetarian). This fall, Le promises that we will see a variety of soups on the menu.
I talked to Le on the phone, and she spoke very candidly about what pushes her fight against the city, what inspires her cooking, and what she thinks would be the best Grub Hub meal.
What led you to opening Duck N Roll food truck? It's one of those things where you do it as a hobby at first, and you are always that one person who cooks for everybody at birthday parties; friends always ask you to prepare stuff for baby showers, wedding showers, all that stuff. I really just got to this point in my life where I thought, 'I am either going to turn this hobby into a full-time job and career or I am never going to do it.'
What was, as Oprah would call it, your "A-HA!" (imagine Oprah voice) moment? When I was working at Grub Hub, I was doing social media and PR. I was working very closely with the founders, Mike [Evans] and Matt [Maloney] and I would attend all of these different conferences in the technology start-up community. So I would listen to all these founders talk about their experiences and what inspires them. They always said, and this is something that Mike, one of the co-founders of Grub Hub, said, "You know? When you want to start a business, it's no longer a hobby when you want to quit your full-time job. You can't pursue it unless you quit your full-time job." He talked about how there is a difference between starting a business and creating something. People talk about doing "something" all the time, but very few people actually do it. I would see all these young entrepreneurs and it was really inspiring to be around all that energy. I was turning thirty-two and I thought, 'If I don't do it now, I will never do it.' So that for me was kind of that moment where I realized that I had to just make the leap or not.
So in a way, your own boss inspired you to leave. It was funny, when I went in to tell them I was leaving—and I have grown really close to Matt and Mike and they have been great mentors to me—Matt was like, 'If you we're going to tell me you were leaving for an agency, I was going to be real pissed off, but the fact that you are leaving to start your own business (because I used to cook for the office all the time!), this is you. This is 100% you. And if you need any support or anything, come to me.' And that felt good and that is when I knew. They will and still have me come back and cater private lunches for them. And, my first year, it was the annual Grub Hub holiday party, and they had the budget to go with a big-named caterer/chef, and they booked me to cater their office holiday party for 300 people. It felt really good to know that they believed in me.
Who opened your eyes to food? The core of my cooking techniques and seasoning has been passed down from my mother. Whether I alter certain recipes, the basis is always going to be there. And those are directly from my mom, from everything she taught me with cooking. One of the seasonings I use she created on her own. It's a family recipe we have, and it's our own version of five-spice. I use a lot of that in one of my soups. It's a recipe that we use to marinate meats with and season our soups with.
The truck, Duck N Roll is celebrating it's one year anniversary. What have you learned this year about Chicago's food truck industry? It's been a challenge. I helped to start the Illinois Food Truck Association this year because there were all these big stipulations and rules that we heard City Hall was going to try to enforce. Rules that would make it more and more difficult for food truck owners to grow their business and coming across that was the most frustrating thing I had ever experienced. Coming off my job, all I wanted to do was be an entrepreneur and start a business and run my business without all these ludicrous restrictions in place. If I am going to be put out of business, it's going to be because I have put out a bad product, not because of some government regulation, and I am not putting out a bad product. I had this moment where I thought, 'What did I get myself into?' I was working around the clock running a business, lobbying, meeting with alderman and the Illinois Food Truck Association, and starting petitions. There were nights I didn't go to sleep until 4 a.m., and then back-up at 7 a.m. again. I kept thinking, 'What is this all for? Did I make the right decision?' Well, I had a food truck meeting a month ago and a few of the food truck owners presented me with this framed quote, and someone basically stepped up and said, 'You know, even though we didn't win against City Hall, no one wanted to fight them. You stood up and whether you ran your business or you came and fought for us, you made a difference.' It was at that moment that I realized that even though it seems hard, you have to fight through those moments. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
What do you think about the food truck parking spots that the Mayor has proposed? Well, I have spent eleven months being very angry at the city and I have accepted the fact that we have fought our best. Now we have to just figure out how we are going to continue to grow. However, I always look at everything with a grain of salt. They will say one thing, but behind closed doors, another thing will happen. I will say that some of the locations listed are phenomenal and these are really ideal spots, but if you look at the spots in the Loop, there are only maybe four or five stands, and they are two spots each. It's a good first step, but I 'd like to see them open up more and more stands in the city. I think once they see the culture the food trucks can create, the city will be more open to allowing the trucks. My only concern is that I hope they don't try to make it difficult for younger trucks to get into the scene versus the big chains.
Do you have any advice for prospective food truck owners? Be persistent and don't ever take no for an answer. I think most of the trucks that have gotten through have been really persistent and really educated on the rules and regulations. I would not walk into City Hall and into Business Affairs without knowing what the requirements and laws are.
One final question. Considering your long history with Grub Hub, what would you describe as your perfect Grub Hub meal? If you look at my Grub Hub history, you will find sushi or Thai. But, my perfect Grub Hub meal would be fried chicken because it's so hard to find really good fried chicken and I have a soft spot for it. I would really love to be able to order some really good fried chicken and mashed potatoes delivered right to my doorstep.
Duck N Roll
Duck N Roll hits scheduled stops Monday through Saturday. Le can also be found at a variety of street fests and booked privately for catering, wedding events, and corporate parties. Find out more about Duck N Roll on its website or via Facebook or Twitter.