Big Star's food truck failed inspection. Will it go rogue?
Thu Oct 6 2011
Photograph: Martha Williams
The truck in [node:148145 link=Big Star;]’s parking lot isn’t supposed to be a tease. The fact that it’s been sitting there, idle, for weeks is the result of high hopes: The truck, which Big Star chef Justin Large has named Consuela, has been waiting for the City Council to change the street food laws to make it legal for trucks to cook food to order. Hoping that the laws would change sooner than they have, One Off Hospitality (the restaurant group behind Big Star, Blackbird, Avec, Publican, etc.) bought Consuela fully outfitted (she came from the West Coast, where cooking on trucks is legal). “We wanted to hit the ground running as soon as the law changed,” Large says.
But when it became apparent the laws weren’t going to change anytime soon—and as the truck, which One Off had already sunk a chunk of cash into, sat around not making any money—the company decided to retrofit the Consuela to meet current food-truck standards. The grill, the fryer, the three-compartment sink—the One Off crew concealed all of it with stainless steel counters. “Which is hilarious,” Large says, “because [the sink] is meant for cleaning and keeping things clean and putting out a responsible and safe product. Which leads me to believe that the reason the food-truck law is not passing probably has nothing to do with food-safety issues—it’s probably more [because] brick-and-mortar restaurants [are] pushing back a little bit.”
About a month ago, it looked as if Consuela was finally getting ready to roll—Large says the truck was “to the point where we thought it would pass inspection.” So the Health Department was called, and an inspection was scheduled.
It didn’t go as Large had hoped. “Immediately [the inspector] came on the truck, saw cutting boards, and was like, ‘You guys fail,’ ” he says. The presence of removable cutting boards in the truck signaled to the health inspector that One Off might intend to prep food on the truck. So she failed them. (Calls to the Health Department on this matter were not immediately returned.)
Large understands the inspector was merely doing her job. “I’m not bagging on the Health Department at all. It’s not really their fault—they’re just enforcing the laws on the books.” But the failed inspection left One Off with few options. “Our recourse at that point would have been to remove all of that equipment and to get reinspected,” Large says.
They decided instead to do the opposite. They removed the stainless-steel countertops, revealing the cooking equipment again. And as of last week, chef Paul Kahan was suggesting in public that the truck would roll, legal or not.
Talk about Consuela going rogue has been understandably vague for fear of creating the impression that One Off is giving the city the finger. “We want to abide. We want to comply. We really want to comply with the city,” says One Off’s Donnie Madia. “But it’s also: We’re businessmen. We want to comply but we have an unbelievable opportunity. We have a really great product. And we want to share that product with people who can’t get to Big Star.
“We’re not here to impede on any brick-and-mortar restaurant,” he adds. “Not our style. Never has been.” He goes on to say that should Consuela go rogue, it would likely park in restaurant-bereft areas.
Large hints that, at first, Consuela may show up on private property, where the murky truck laws can’t reach her. And at these events, maybe, just maybe, the food (Big Star staples like the pork belly and fish tacos, as well as Consuela originals—tamales, maybe a burger) will be given away for free. But after that, Large says, Consuela will hit the streets. “Maybe make some late-night runs outside of bars or do things of that nature,” he says.
Will tickets and fines—the city's presumed form of punishment for going rogue—stop One-Off? Not until the fines get truly out of hand, Large says. The point is to be out there and stay out there, “to force the conversation a little bit.”
“There’s going to be people that are going to be pissed off at us for doing it, and there’s going to be people who applaud us for doing it,” Large says. “[But] at the very least, people are now talking.”
If and when Consuela takes off, it will be announced via Kahan’s Twitter account, @paulkahan.