It’s 12:14 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Chicago and my stomach is growling. Loudly. I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of the city’s West Loop neighborhood with about 20 others.
“Look, there it is… sweet!” one person from the group yells. Our 42 eyes collectively focus on the same thing: a white bus with a red sign reading:
The mob walks in unison down the sidewalk to meet the bus and we all form a loose line. We are waiting for Chicago’s newest hot ticket: a sandwich from a street vendor -- two words never uttered within the city limits.
“I’ve never caught the wagon before, so I am really excited,” says Stephanie Hasz, a Chicago resident.
I’m excited too. Unlike in New York City and Los Angeles where you can find vendors hawking everything from hot dogs to falafels, street food is nonexistent in Chicago -- strange considering how food-centric the city has become as of late. Ordinates prohibit the cooking of food on the street. If you want to sell it, you need make it elsewhere and bring it to the people.
That is exactly what Matt Maroni does. Maroni moved from the East Coast to Chicago in 2007 and was shocked at the lack of food on city streets. He decided to change that. In early 2010, he developed a business plan that would include a restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, a catering company and a bus (err, wagon). For the mobile portion of the business, he planned to make food at the restaurant and then sell it on the street.
In July 2010 he launched Gaztro-Wagon, using Twitter and Facebook to alert followers to his location -- which would change daily. The idea took off. To date, Gaztro-Wagon (@whereszthewagon) has more than 5,600 followers.
“I started following him about a week after he started the business; I read his tweets daily to find out where he will be next,” says Jose Villagomez, another Chicago resident waiting in line with me.
In addition to starting his company, Maroni is taking on the establishment and hopes to help change Chicago’s street food laws for good.
“I wrote up a 45-page thesis for the City of Chicago on why food trucks would be good for the city,” Maroni says. “I approached an alderman in the ward where I live and he took the proposal to the Chicago City Council in July. It is sitting in committee right now.”
Although Gaztro-Wagon is popular with residents, several of Chicago’s brick and mortar restaurants aren’t too keen on Maroni’s business model.
“A lot of them have publicly come out against me; they say I am unfair competition,” he says. “It really doesn’t make sense—McDonald’s doesn’t ask Burger King if they can set up shop across the street.”
Back in line, I spot a chalkboard propped up against a snow bank listing today’s menu items. Wild boar cassoulet with white beans, tomato, leeks and Andouille sausage; chicken thighs with brie and mushrooms; Croque Monsieur with ham, swiss and mornay; pork belly with frisee, onion and mustard sauce. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill street food.
“What can I get ya?” bellows Maroni from inside the truck, flashing a smile. I order the wild boar. Everything comes as a naan sandwich. I unwrap the aluminum foil and take a bite. Wow, fantastic and very flavorful. Next time I’ll have to get the Croque Monsieur. I look back at the line of people, which has just extended to include at least 20 more. One of them looks over at me. I can see him salivating. I gobble up the rest of the sandwich in a flash.
Now, I’m off to check Twitter to see where I can find him tomorrow.