A Visual Representation of Chicago Food Trucks

A Visual Representation of Chicago Food Trucks

Over the summer I started noticing the sharp rise in the number of Food Trucks in Chicago. I have always been a food enthusiast and I do a blog called Drews-Foods where I even rate and chronicle my adventures. I wanted to make a design (see full-size) that would showcase all the different business, places, and items you can find in this exciting new frontier of culinary expression.

I wanted to create a design that would showcase all the different business, places, and items you can find in this exciting new frontier of culinary expression. So to start my adventure I went what is now the logical route…. I began following these various food trucks via Twitter and Facebook. I quickly realized that these food trucks were even more popular than I had realized. One, in particular, a certain Flirty Cupcake, had more then 30,000 followers, ten times that of many other food trucks. That simply blew me away. Who knew that 2,000 people a month on average discover and follow mobile cupcakes.

I knew that it was definitely going to be very interesting learning more about the world of food trucks, and I definitely didn’t want to underestimate the strength of the movement and its followers. However, despite their increasing popularity and the growing desire for gourmet food trucks in Chicago, the city has definitely not been an ally in nurturing their establishment. There are a few key factors that hinder the food truck movement:

  • There has been a stringent 20 year ban on all food manufacturing from a motorized vehicle while on city property.
  • Local restaurants maintain political pressure to keep the ban in effect.
  • Food Trucks must conform to many city health codes, such as that a front driver section must be separate from the back food preparation area.
  • All food must be packaged separately and individually, which can be a tall order in the case of a large batch of cupcakes for example.

Luckily, despite all constraints the city puts on food trucks, I can personally attest that the trend is on the rise. I tried my hardest to find every food truck in operation in Chicago-land, but there is almost no way that I found and sampled them all. What about the trucks that are less active? That don’t use social media, if you can possibly imagine that? Or simply are not mentioned by there peers? It can be easy to overlook a truck that delivers its message by word of mouth.

Greater Los Angeles has 10,000 food trucks. We are not there yet, but I can tell you we have enough that I can miss one or two. That in itself is evidence of their increasing popularity, and I’m not ashamed to say that after going through nearly 4 dozen websites, menus, and schedules, I left out trucks that were not yet active, or for which I could find no recent activity. However, I am very happy to say, some new trucks that had not yet started serving food, but posted a menu via social media did make it on to this graphic, just without routine stops incorporated into their section.

Speaking of routine, it can’t be over-emphasized just how important a component for success routine is for a food truck in Chicago. The routes that comprise the weekly schedule of a food cart downtown is largely set in stone. Well, as set in stone as you can be on wheels anyway. Barring a move-along from local parking or police attendants, you can find the Gastro Wagon at Wacker and Van Buren every Friday when they tell you “touchdown”, they mean it. This is a great way to establish yourself in the community to be sure, but I can’t help thinking that if you’re the customer at the end of the route on a busy day this routine could result in someone else getting the last “Cheeburger Cheeburger”.

Bergenstein’s NY Deli process my credit card at 19th and Halsted.

Another example of routine is shown on Twitter, where you can sometimes see which trucks are traveling together. They may mention whom they are with to further entice you to come out and get some food. The SMG Food Truck (Sweet Miss Giving’s) will pair up with Bergenstein’s Deli sometimes, like last weekend when I went to 19th and Halsted for the art installations at Pilsen’s Second Friday.

It’s easy to find all the Food Trucks that run in the main down-town area because they reference each other frequently, and largely keep to the same routes. You certainly can find a row of food truck “usual suspects” extending down around the base of The Aon Center, but what about the other more elusive food trucks?

Raphael takes my order at the elusive Wagyu Wagon at Butler Field (Grant Park)

There are many reasons why some of the trucks seem to be more elusive than others. I have observed that food trucks fall into a few different categories. Some trucks are more extensions of restaurants than self-standing places. For example, Ja Grill To Go serves food downtown, but is also a restaurant on Armitage. And some trucks seem to be more sedimentary. The Isla De Cafe primarily won’t leave Humboldt Park. Or, some dessert food trucks seem to pop up in Hyde Park or 26th and California, and make more stops during the day, seemingly darting around.

By far the most elusive food trucks are the ones that are pushing the boundaries of what the city allows, and these are the carts that are cooking on-board. There are a few like the south western Fire It Up Truck, or the newly created Wagyu Wagon. I was lucky enough to find the Wagyu Wagon last Friday in an eastern section of Grant Park, afterwards I was completely convinced that their entrees were as boundary-pushing and delicious as the concept for mobile food purveyors. I’m told Rahm agrees and has promised to help ease these restrictions where possible.

In the end, it’s easy for me to be attracted to food trucks. They share a lot of the characteristics I’m attracted to in people–a sense of adventure, boldness, and individuality. In Chicago, the culinary arts play a significant role in our everyday lives. We are always looking for the new restaurant, the new bar, the new chef. It’s gratifying to see this adventurous lot cheerfully handing you something that not only encourages and supports local business, but breaks free from the confines of the ordinary and reminds you that in its essence food truck culture is more then just delicious takeaways, it’s about creating a community experience, getting outside your box, hustling, engaging, and taking a chance, not just on a new item, but in life.

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  • Like the blog, it looks great! How did you make that flashing thing? Either way, nice to meet you at the tweetup.

  • Just Photoshop - Nice to meet you also!

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