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Matt Maroni

The Abe Froman of food trucks leads a mobile lunch revolution.
Tuesday Sep 07, 2010.     By Karl Klockars
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: Matt Wood
Chef Matt Maroni serves naan-wiches out of his Gaztro-Wagon.
The paperwork for the Food Truck Ordinance has been presented to the Powers that Be and the wheels of government are turning, slowly but surely. Now it's chef Matt Maroni's job to put his money where his mouth is and prove that food trucks are not only viable, but workable even under the current ordinance. Beyond that, he's showing that "mobile food dispensers" (as described by the ordinance) are worth freeing from existing legislation.

His Gaztro-Wagon, equal parts roving food truck and brick-and-mortar encampment on north Clark street, has proven popular enough to sell out of its product within a single lunch hour. In some places, Maroni reports that his signature naan-wiches sell out in just over a half hour at some of his most popular downtown stops.

While the back channels of the City Council work over his ordinance, Maroni took some time to talk with Centerstage about the civic process, what the future of the Gaztro-Wagon could be, and just how far his ordinance could go. And if/when the ordinance passes, how long does Maroni actually plan on being the chef behind the wheel?

As a chef, did you ever think you'd be this knowledgeable about the civic process?
Not a chance in hell. [laughs]

Based on that, you've probably learned a lot about the process of bringing something into law. Where does it stand at this point?
I approached the Chamber of Commerce with the idea - I used to work right above the chamber of commerce so I had some friends over there, and one of the girls that worked there lives right below me. So I brought her in and one of the other employees at the Chamber, and I was like, "Look, I need your guys' help. I need to find out what kind of processes I need to go through."

So they set me up with the government relations guy over at the Chamber, and I said, "OK, I have this ordinance, I have it written," I had studied and researched it and it's pretty fair with what is written now for retail food establishments. We've had to go back and tweak it, but it just started out as a pipe dream to launch a food truck. And when I started looking at ordinances, I realized that there's not one. And I can stomp my feet, or put pen to paper and go after it that way.

When you announced chicagofoodtrucks.com, you started it anonymously and didn't do any press. What was behind your decision to do that?
It was to gauge interest, and it was also to have people talk about it and try to guess and play - I really intrigued a lot of people about it. A lot of people thought it was [former Lockwood chef] Phillip Foss for a long time. He's a food truck advocate and we met along the road because he had approached [Alderman Vi Daley], and I had the ordinance written ... we came together and I was like, "I'm getting ready to launch this website, help me get it out there?"

So people jumped on it, and I can't tell you how many press inquiries I got. I was just like, "No. No. No. No." And it just kept building. I knew I had the ordinance written already, but nobody else did - that's kind of the reason why I did it anonymously. And I didn't have a name as a chef here in town, so it was part of my attack plan to start anonymously and come out with a splash.

Have you been surprised by the amount of support? What did you expect when you launched this?
The response has been incredible. Even now when I pull up to a location for lunch or dinner, I have people waiting on me. I knew it'd either blow up, or it'd flop, and there wasn't gonna be any in-between. Based on what we're doing out here with the truck under the current ordinances, and through my shop, I know itís gonna be a big thing.

We're still pushing to be the driving force for getting the ordinance done, and we're still working on that. That's one of the reasons I'm closed on Mondays - it's really the only day I take meetings. That day's pretty chock-full with doing stuff on the ordinance and talking with other people and getting our ducks in the row for when we get a chance to talk.

It seems that the fire behind moving the ordinance forward has slowed somewhat. What's the next step in the process, and what kind of behind the scenes wrangling is going on?
It's going to a joint committee of economic development and licensing. I approached [Alderman] Waguespack and that was on the advice of the Chamber of Commerce. They said, "Just talk to your alderman." So I reached out to them and they got right back to me. I threw it out as a food ordinance, and they were like, "Well, we need a little more information." So we traded some emails back and forth, as just something to chew on.

A couple weeks later I had a meeting with him, and he said "We can take this to council tomorrow, and I can surprise everybody, or we can do this through the back channels and get everybody's feedback so we have a strong ordinance to go to council." [Then] they're aware of it, they know what's going on with it, theyíve seen it and they've touched it. We sent out more information on numbers and job creation and entrepreneurship. But the response has been incredible.

And after all that?
It's gotta go through committees first. That's the aldermen doing their business. If they want to talk to us, that's when they'll reach out to me and I'll take someone that builds trucks along with me, a lawyer that's been working with me on it and myself, and maybe another couple chefs in town. It's definitely got a lot of support - I have comments for or against, and probably 97 percent of the comments are positive and people are ready for it.

Enough about the law - onto the food. What will change on the Gaztro-Wagon as soon as the ordinance passes? Did you go into this assuming that it'd become law and you could adjust your menu at that point?
Absolutely. That's kind of working with my interpretation of naan, that acts as a barrier to hold heat and the ingredients together. Once the legislation is passed, I'll go back and we can add hot components and cold components. I was going to assemble on the truck, and when they came out to inspect they said, "Itís gotta be pre-packaged. You can't assemble anything." I said, "Even if Iím dumping things into a container?" They said, "Nope."

So, OK, I've seen it done out on the streets, but Iím not going to push the bar. The things that we're creating right now, they hold up. Because we go in such a quick format and we're selling out so quick, the quality could be better if we had hot and cold components, but what we're doing right now was written for the ordinance the way it stands right now.

The naan-wich is working for you now, but are you married to it? Or is there a chance we'll see you re-concept sooner or later?
Well, yeah, I'll probably do different concepts down the road. But since I have such a unique niche right now, and I'm the first one out there. Once the ordinance passes there'll be a lot more out there, and that's what I hope to see - but there's only going to be one first one. you know? And that will always be with me. At the end of the day, I'll be the Food Truck Guy of Chicago. [To self:] You're Abe Froman? Yes, Iím Abe Froman. [laughs]

It's an opportunity for me to capitalize off of, and that's kinda the way I've set it up. I worked hard and diligently on it, to get it done before anybody else did. There are other people out there working on them, I know that for sure, but I'm one of those people who will stop at nothing to get it done and be out there and be the leader in it.

Without outing anyone, how many people do you know have plans for a food truck right now? And how many do you think would enter the market when it's possible to do so?
I've talked to many people, and it's all about finding the money to do it. Of course, an established restaurant [or] a big chef will have the wherewithal to do it. A restaurant company that has multiple concepts - they have the wherewithal to do it. But a lot of people are just waiting to see how the ordinance pans out before they start dropping money into things like that. It's a risk, because it's still up to the City Council. I'm running under what I can do just to open people's eyes in Chicago to what a food truck can be. Somebody had to be the martyr - might as well be me. [laughs]

In addition to being the Food Truck Guy, have you considered going into consulting?
Oh yeah - that's where the money's at! [laughs] Like I've told a few people, if you see me standing behind a griddle or in a food truck in a year, there's something wrong. I have bigger plans down the road, too, but I'm just focused on my business now. I'm always working on new things and new ideas and going from there, but since I am the tip of the spear it'll be easy for me to wrangle up money to do other concepts. With my truck now, I'm already in the black. But I've gotta keep that afloat first and foremost, because even if you're the leader, and it goes "poof" - you never know, the truck could break down for a week and I'm out thousands of dollars.

There's a flip side to being out of commission - where others might only have one truck in the future, you could have a whole fleet of them.
I have the contacts now that, if this ordinance goes through, I know who to go through, who to talk to, and nobody else probably has the research that I've done. I get requests all the time, like "Hey, I want to open a food truck." Great! Do you work in a restaurant? Have you ever worked in a kitchen? No? Get your ass in a kitchen. It's not easy - it's as demanding if not more demanding than running a restaurant. And that's no easy task. Doing the two of them together, you have to be able to manage and have trust in other people that things are being done properly. I have a great staff, I have a staff of eight, I take care of them and they take care of me.

And there's only so many people that actually build the trucks - you're certainly first in line for them as well.
There's really only a couple companies here in the Midwest that do 'em. There's not enough cities in the Midwest that allow them. I've gotten reached out to, for the ordinance part of it, from Boston, to Detroit, to Sacramento, to Boulder, Colo., to Columbia, Mo., and even a town in Brazil. The guy in Brazil, I shot it to him and said, "Have fun translating it into Portuguese!" I donít even know where to start with that! It's been great, and it's been a great response, and how far it travels and goes from there has been humbling. I'm just gonna continue rolling the way it needs to.

 

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