Will suburbs eat up food trucks?
The pink and white Cruisin' Cupcakes truck pulled up to a busy Schaumburg ballfield one weeknight, slid open its large side window and slapped up a magnetic menu.
Within minutes, customers were lined up with money in hand.
"With sports, a lot of families are running out and don't have a lot of time, so they like this," says customer Tom McGowan of Schaumburg, after buying his 11-year-old daughter, Megan, a cupcake.
Food trucks have become popular in downtown Chicago and other big cities around the U.S., especially during weekday lunch hours. The trucks move from street to street, alerting customers on Twitter and Facebook where their next stop will be, and workers quickly pop out of their offices to grab a fast, fresh to-go meal or snack.
While food trucks are trendy in the city, few have ventured out to the suburbs. Truck owners' reasons for avoiding the suburbs range from a lack of foot traffic to restrictive municipal rules, but Cruisin' Cupcakes owner Angie DeFabis-Moeller says they're missing out on a potentially lucrative market.
While she doesn't cater to the business lunch crowd, she capitalizes on the lack of concession stands at suburban youth sporting events.
"It's been wildly successful so far. I sometimes run out of cupcakes," said DeFabis-Moeller, a retired nurse from Schaumburg who launched her business in May. "I'm not going to get rich and retire, and I sometimes work 14-hour days ... but I'm making money and having fun. I've never had more fun in my life."
In this weak economy, food trucks allow aspiring chefs or entrepreneurs to launch a business for a fraction of the cost of opening a restaurant.
DeFabis-Moeller says she spent only about $5,000 to start up her business. Her expenses included a repossessed truck, a snazzy paint job, baking supplies, the getyourcupcakes.com domain name and kitchen space rental from Jeff Can Cook? Catering in Schaumburg.
Today's food trucks aren't "roach coaches" that sell prepackaged or concession-stand food. Instead, the menu might feature fresh Moroccan lamb with roasted zucchini, a vegan basil focaccia sandwich, gourmet empanadas or shredded chicken tacos. Some trucks, if the municipality allows, are equipped with grills and stoves to cook their food fresh on the spot.
Cruisin' Cupcakes -- whose menu changes regularly -- was recently selling treats like freshly made $2.50 peach cobbler cupcakes, $1 mini green tea cupcakes with lemon grass and ginger and several cupcake spinoffs, such as a $1 "cakecup sundae," which consists of two smashed chocolate cupcakes with an assortment of frostings and toppings.
Chef Phillip Foss, 41, of Skokie, who has three Meatyballs Mobile food trucks in Chicago, agrees that it can be a fun mom-and-pop operation and a great way to market a business. His food truck success helped fund his new fine-dining restaurant, EL, which opened last week in Chicago.
However, Foss said his experience in the suburbs has been hit-or-miss. While he's done a decent business at large suburban festivals, he said the spread-out suburbs can't always generate the foot traffic needed to make it worthwhile for him to drive his gas-guzzling truck from his South Loop kitchen.
"You want the best amount of traffic, so it's all about location," Foss said. "If somebody finds a niche, it can be great. It can also be a disaster."
Another obstacle food trucks face in the suburbs is their image problem, said Heather Shouse, a Chicago-based food writer and author of the new book "Food Trucks" ($20, Ten Speed Press).
Shouse said those not familiar with the new trucks think they're low-class operations that will "junk up the place." Once they see this new breed of trucks -- and realize they can provide fresh, gourmet food fast -- they love them, Shouse said.
"They're more relevant because of the current economic climate," she said. "As a business model, I don't think this is a flash in the pan. I don't think it's going to go away."
In other cities, some large suburban business parks have cut deals with food trucks, letting them operate on their private property and promoting their presence in exchange for a small percentage of the sales, Shouse said.
Not everyone is a fan of this new food truck trend, however. The Illinois Restaurant Association, which did not return calls for this story, is reportedly trying to put restrictions on Chicago food trucks because they compete with the brick-and-mortar restaurants that pay property taxes.
Some suburban organizations feel the same way.
"All of these merchants are out here paying rent and taxes, and they're here in the rain, sleet and hail trying to make a living. And then (the food trucks) only get to be out here when the going's good?" said Katie Wood, executive director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance.
Alliance board members have mixed feelings about "mobile vendors," Wood said, because while they're competition for local restaurants, they also are a fun feature to bring more foot traffic to downtown Naperville.
"As long as there aren't too many," said Wood. "People are very aware and cautious (of this trend)."
Some suburbs have already put restrictions on trucks to protect their existing restaurants. Schaumburg, for example, prohibits food trucks staying in one place for more than 15 minutes and requires the food to be prepared in a licensed kitchen. Naperville requires background checks of all employees. Elgin charges $420 a year for a mobile food handling permit, and requires trucks get a temporary use permit if they intend to set up at a site for any length of time.
None of it has stopped Cruisin' Cupcakes from being an immediate success in the suburbs. DeFabis-Moeller's "mobile cupcake service" has become so popular in the past two months, she's already received invitations to open in a Woodfield Shopping Center kiosk and a Kenosha mall, and she might even add more trucks to her fleet so she can sell cupcakes at community colleges and other suburban sporting events.
For now, she is just riding the wave and debating whether to expand her business.
In the meantime, food trucks remain a largely urban attraction.
"It can definitely work in the suburbs," Shouse said. "But it's a competitive market."