The New Food Truck Renaissance
As the pandemic drags on, chefs are taking the show on the road.
In a neon yellow food truck parked outside of Pulaski International School, a high school in Chicago’s Wicker Park, chef Jason Vincent tops thick square slices with pepperoni and onions. Usually the pizza is the truck’s best seller, but today they sold out of the Burroti—a falafel sandwich wrapped in house-made roti—in an hour.
There’s a line of early voters wrapping around the block; many swing by the truck afterward for a bite. Chicken noodle soup comes with a piece of garlic-drenched bread. House-fermented hot sauce adds a zing to the broccoli salad. This is the kind of food that Vincent, who was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2013, is known for at his Chicago restaurants Giant and Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar. It's food that Vincent calls “normal but fancy, but not seemingly fancy.”
Vincent’s restaurants, like so many right now, are struggling. They’re operating at 10% of what they were before, and he’s on track to lose a quarter of a million dollars from Giant alone—a 44-seater in Bucktown. And this was before Illinois banned indoor dining last week. Vincent has known for a while that he’d need to try something different in order to bring in more cash.
So, he rented a food truck, gave it a paint job, and is going all in. “We’re doing this out of necessity,” he said.
Like many chefs, Vincent is obsessive about hospitality. But in this climate, when chefs and restaurant owners are fighting for the survival of their spaces and their staff, they’ve had to find new ways to be hospitable. For some, this means bringing the restaurant experience directly to guests via a food truck. Although food trucks are often seen as a stepping stone to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, many chefs and restaurateurs are now reversing that trajectory, using trucks to help save their restaurants.
In Vincent’s case, the Giant truck can be booked for small, private, outdoor parties—like a kid’s birthday party or a tailgate—and the menu is fully customizable, with an option to turn the truck into a cocktail bar. “We want to make it available to the people that are starved for entertainment," he said. "We’re trying to meet a need and we honestly don’t know what that need is yet.”
Jennifer Vitagliano, owner of Musket Room in New York City, also explored the food truck model in an effort to diversify her business model. Right now, Musket Room is largely dependent upon their outdoor dining. The restaurant can host 16 guests inside of the dining room and has been successful in doing two turns per evening. But Vitagliano wanted to utilize the kitchen during the day, when the dinner-only restaurant isn’t operating. For her, the truck acts as an all-day café. “It’s more a vessel for serving food than a traditional food truck,” Vitagliano said.
The truck will be stationary, parked outside of the restaurant, and will showcase Musket Room’s legendary bread and pastries. At the beginning of the pandemic, the restaurant couldn’t keep up with the demand for their bread, so this will be an opportunity for Musket Room bread lovers to show their support.
It will also enable Vitagliano to provide her staff with more chances to be creative. “We’re pushing the limits of what we can do as a team and within these four walls,” she said.
Eventually, Vitagliano plans to use the truck as a pickup point and delivery vehicle for takeout and meal kits. But for the time being, she hopes it brings in new clientele and translates the Michelin-starred Musket Room experience into something more casual.
For Missy Robbins, chef/owner of Lilia and Misi in Brooklyn, delivering hospitality with a truck looks a little different. Back in February, Robbins and her team launched a new concept that had been a year in the making: Misi Pasta. They sold DIY kits of pasta and sauce, drawing hour-long lines until the kits sold out.
The original intention was to start a pasta company and then open a retail store in 2021, a modern take on the Italian specialty stores that Robbins grew up on in New Haven, but then COVID-19 hit. The store was put on hold, and the idea behind it took on a different shape.
Since July, the Misi team has been delivering MP New York products—which include pastas, sauces, prepared items, produce, and specialty goods like olive oil and slow-roasted tomatoes—door to door in New York City and to pick-up points across the tri-state area.
“The delivery truck came into play when we realized a lot of people were out of town,” Robbins said.
MP New York now has two delivery trucks, and Robbins has expanded the concept to make it even more user-friendly. Each week on Instagram Stories, Robbins shares quick, easy recipes that instruct people on how to cook with MP New York items—whether that’s making Lilia’s famed mafaldini with a pasta kit or taking jarred artichokes and tomatoes from the grocery bag and incorporating them into a bass dish.
“The goal is to make this simple,” Robbins said. “To us, that’s part of the hospitality. To make it easier for people to cook and understand.”