Matt Maroni has quit. Are food trucks screwed?
Wed Jan 4 2012
Photograph: Michael Boyd
Michelle Bachmann is leaving the race, and so is Matt Maroni. Eater reports that Maroni is closing his Edgewater storefront, gaztro-wagon; handing off the gaztro-wagon truck business to somebody else; and stepping down into a consultant role at Morso, the restaurant he opened in August.
When I read that Eater post, my mind immediately went to Phillip Foss's blog post, The Rise and Fall of Meatyballs, in which Foss chronicles how and why Meatyballs became unsustainable. It's an interesting read (kind of emotional, too, thanks to Foss's trademark earnestness/honesty), especially when read in tandem with Maroni's story. Foss and Maroni were Chicago food truck pioneers. That they are now both out of the game after a couple of years does not seem to me like a coincidence.
I don't know anything about the staying power of food trucks in other cities—perhaps 18 months is a common and respectable life for a truck. But in Chicago, the expectation was that the genre would flourish and grow. And food trucks have indeed grown, but in a specific way. Trucks hawking baked goods—cupcakes, mostly—do well. Hot food, which is more time consuming and more expensive to produce, does not. Among what I consider the food truck frontrunners (that would be, as of a few months ago, Meatyballs, Gaztrowagon, Flirty Cupcakes and The Southern Mac), The Southern Mac has been the lone hot food truck to thrive. Like Gaztro and Meatyballs, it opened a physical storefront (Meatyballs' storefront was production-only, and the restaurant El at night). But unlike its brothers-on-wheels, doing so was not a necessity—The Southern Mac already had The Southern to cook out of. It added the extra expense of a storefront to keep up with demand. The way I see it (and I'm no businessman), Southern Mac has another advantage: Its product, macaroni and cheese, it easily adaptable, and cheap and easy to produce. There's no boar belly to deal with, no endless variety of meatballs to make.
There's something to be taken away from Maroni and Foss's failures and The Southern Mac and Flirty's success: The ambitious cooking that made trucks popular in L.A. and elsewhere is not feasible under the current food truck laws. It is too expensive, too time consuming and, I'm guessing, too discouraging on cold January days when nobody's buying. That leaves us with food trucks hawking sliders, cupcakes and macaroni. Nothing wrong with that. But we had all that before food trucks got big. And I had always hoped that food trucks would, I don't know, move us foward.