Fighting For Food Truck Rights In Chicago

Phillip Foss does not shrink in the cold.

The former executive chef of the critically acclaimed Lockwood restaurant in Chicago's Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Foss was relieved of his duties in 2010 for what could be called social media indiscretions.

Rather than search for a new restaurant job or an investment partner to help him jump right back into the confines of fine dining, the outspoken chef took his appropriately named blog, The Pickled Tongue, and began pouring his energy into the local fight to legalize food trucks. Currently the city allows food prepared in a certified kitchen to be sold from trucks, but no one in Chicago can actually cook in a kitchen on wheels.

Partly due to Foss's efforts, draft legislation exists. But when City Hall gets around to addressing it is anyone's guess. If Foss and other advocates are successful in their efforts, rolling kitchens will be a reality in Chicago.

For now, Foss and about a dozen others will continue to sell their wares from glorified delivery trucks. But perhaps Foss is the only one doing it five days a week all year long, even through the arctic temperatures of the Chicago winter. His Meatyballs Mobile makes several stops a week, and he alerts his customers to his whereabouts both on his Web site and through his tweets.

His sandwiches include one called "BBQ Balls" featuring pulled pork with red cabbage, apples, and cola bourbon barbecue sauce; a vegetarian offering called "Ricotta Balls" featuring ricotta dumplings, eggplant Bolognese, and parsley pesto; and "Thai'd Balls" made of turkey with coconut milk, Thai chili sauce, and sweet peppers—all served on baguettes.

On a recent afternoon Foss parked on a downtown street corner and, after an hour, found himself apologizing to hungry office workers who had had the misfortune of making their way to his truck too late. Foss sold his entire inventory for that day—100 meatball sandwiches—between 11 a.m. and noon.

"Sorry," he said as singles and groups of well-dressed people approached him, bundled for the cold. "Completely sold out." He promised to make more sandwiches before he returned to that particular spot a week later. His face was ruddy and slightly paralyzed by the cold.

"I'm committed to this," Foss said, his breath rising in poofs of steam as an L train rumbled overhead.

He says he chose to make this simple street food and personally sell it to his customers ($7 to $9 per sandwich) because it better suits his personality. There is a certain braving-the-elements toughness he enjoys, too. Acknowledging how brutal Chicago winters can be Foss has publicly kicked around the idea of doing office deliveries on a bicycle for those who would rather not venture out to his truck.

"I have big meaty balls," he said, almost taunting the oppressive weather.

Foss rents kitchen space in Chicago and prepares all of his sandwiches in that kitchen, then loads them onto his standard silver-sided food truck, which obviously has some significant miles on it. Of his truck, contrasting Chicago's most notorious public housing project and its most famous shopping street, Foss says, "We look like Cabrini-Green but taste like the Magnificent Mile."

Should food truck legislation pass in Chicago, Foss would have to invest in a larger truck with a kitchen in it. Perhaps then he could warm up a bit and could get rid of the stocking cap he's worn through the Chicago winter as temperatures fluctuated between the teens and twenties.

Whether he cooks his food to order in a toasty kitchen on wheels or he simply hands pre-made meatball sandwiches to his customers, he vows to continue personally pushing street food.

"There are a lot less complications out here," he says. "I don't have to deal with the front of the house, I have a lower price point and a higher profit margin, and there's something comforting about casual food. Sandwiches are what people generally eat for lunch. Plus, no one can fire me."

What's your take on food trucks? Pro-Foss or Anti-Foss? Speak up in comments.