Barring any last-minute delays, Matt Maroni will open a tiny sandwich shop in Edgewater this week. He's calling it "gaztro-wagon."
The 13-seat shop is made of bricks and not at all mobile. But if Maroni gets his way, gaztro-wagon will serve as a launching pad for a revolution in Chicago dining.
In the last couple of years, a gourmet food truck craze has swept cities from Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, to New York and Minneapolis. High-end chefs and talented amateurs have hopped in mobile kitchens to serve kimchi tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches and Latin-Asian chow to foodies who follow them on Twitter and line up in convivial droves.
But while Chicago is home to some of the nation's most innovative restaurants, its food truck scene has largely been left in the dust. Only "pre-prepared and packaged foods" — like the kind sold from silver lunch wagons — can be offered on the street, not the freshly made delicacies fueling the trend.
Determined to change that, Maroni has drafted a city ordinance that Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) plans to introduce in the City Council this month.
Maroni knows he may be next in a long line of petitioners who have tried and failed to change Chicago's mobile food laws. But the 31-year-old Texan thinks he may have the best shot yet.
An experienced cook, Maroni was executive chef at Chicago's Mid America Club from 2007 to 2009 and has a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Most crucially, he has spent the last five months studying municipal codes about food trucks in other U.S. cities.
"Getting fired (by Mid America) was the best thing that ever happened to me," said the cook, whose wife, Melina, works at a small mergers and acquisitions company. "I had months to surf the Internet and study food trends."
Maroni synthesized much of that research into a "model ordinance" for Chicago that he shared with Waguespack in March. Nearly 30 pages long, it argues that food trucks could bring jobs and revenue while adding a new dimension to the city's dining scene.
Those arguments were appealing, said Waguespack's director of outreach, Elizabeth Gomez. But what sold the alderman, she said, was the potential to "bring business and a sense of community to areas where great food is not easily available. … We are taking our time to make sure that we are addressing public health and safety concerns to ensure that we create an ordinance that will be successful in Chicago."
Joining forces with Maroni is Lockwood Restaurant chef Phillip Foss, who had been talking with Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) about a similar ordinance that would allow him launch a truck selling something he calls "Meatyballs."
So far, a handful of aldermen and some city department representatives have perused the proposal. "We've gotten no flat-out rejections, but people do have their questions," Maroni said optimistically.
Department of Public Health spokesman Tim Hadac would not comment on the proposed ordinance but wrote in an e-mail that the department keeps "an open mind on any proposals to amend the Municipal Code as it relates to mobile food dispensers."
In a surprise to the Maroni camp, Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) last month invited the departments of health, law and business licensing and consumer affairs to speak to her Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee about legalizing food trucks. According to aides, the idea was inspired by visits to her son in the Los Angeles area.
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The Illinois Restaurant Association has expressed support for the food truck concept. But "we want to be sure (restaurant) operators who have already made investments are not harmed," said President Sheila O'Grady. "We think a pilot program could be a good first step. There is clearly a lot of interest in the industry."
At last week's National Restaurant Association show at McCormick Place, one of the hottest exhibits was a shiny new food truck featuring state-of-the-art sinks, fridges, fryers, griddles and computers. The truck was built by Mobi Munch, a company that provides such ventures with support, from licensing and staff to custom vehicles.
Among the Chicago restaurateurs who have expressed dreams of revving up a food truck (if not immediate plans) are the folks behind Alinea, Wow Bao, Big Star, Urban Belly, Frontera Grill, Perennial, Graham Elliot, Naha and Keefer's Restaurant.
But even if the hot chefs inevitably will draw most of the attention, Maroni said he doesn't want to leave smaller food-cart vendors behind. A Spanish speaker, Maroni said he hopes to cooperate with Chicago's Street Vendor Association (Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes), which has tried for more than a decade to legalize the preparation of corn, fruit and other food on the street.
"I could have done this under the radar and maybe gotten away with this," he said. "But then it would have only benefited me. … Ordinances I've seen in other cities include food carts under the law, and we should do that, too."