Unlikely Food Truck Operator Takes on Salsa, City Regulations

By Lizzie Schiffman on January 14, 2013 8:34am | Updated on January 14, 2013 12:08pm

WEST LOOP — Chicago now allows food trucks to cook their eats onboard — but if you want to operate a mobile kitchen, you need a place to park it.

The city requires all mobile food preparers to have a commissary — in this case part kitchen, part garage — where trucks can dock overnight and food can be safely handled.

Dan Salls, a financial adviser who recently quit his high-paying bank job to chase his dream of operating a food truck, said he wants to build the first commissary to cater specifically to four-wheeled chefs.

Salls bought an old ice cream truck the same day he gave his notice at Wells Fargo, and has spent the last seven months transforming it into a restaurant on wheels.

He started in early July, at a time when the city only allowed "mobile food dispensers" to serve food prepared off site as they circulated through the city. Operators were required to prepare their food in a kitchen off the truck, so there weren't rules about where it was parked.

With those restrictions in mind, Salls settled on Mexican food, inspired in part by his girlfriend's father's signature salsa, and the pragmatism of carting around cold food on a truck that's restricted to reheating.

Then, on July 25, the city passed an ordinance to allow trucks to cook onboard and vend from free spaces scattered throughout the city. This class of food truck requires a city-approved commissary.

Salls already had rented a space at 116 N. Aberdeen St. to park his own truck, with room in the front for a small, 20-seat lunch counter he calls The Garage.

In the back half of the building — which used to be a CrossFit gym — he's been steadily bringing the space up to code for commissary use. It can accommodate up to six trucks, including his fire-engine red Salsa Truck.

A self-taught chef with no restaurant experience, Salls is hoping his fellow mobile-food operators will take him up on his offer to house their trucks in his space.

"If I can get a couple people in there, it pays my rent, and we want to help the scene flourish, and do it in a better way, by the rules," Salls said.

The only thing holding him back from opening shop is the city, Salls said.

Before the city ordinance changed to allow trucks with operational kitchens inside, food truck owners needed shared kitchens to prepare their eats before loading it into the truck.

Logan Square Kitchens, a shared kitchen used by 20 businesses including food-truck cooks, closed its doors at the end of June, citing an unbearable burden of red tape, constant inspections and monthslong processing periods that choked their business. Other shared kitchens exist in Chicago, but the city has yet to sign off on any commissaries where trucks can be parked.

Salls has hit some roadblocks getting his licensing in order, including a rejection of the $5,000 stainless steel sink he had custom made to meet the city's requirements. The piping was made of the wrong material, he was told.

"It's extremely excruciating," Salls said, a sentiment echoed by many trying to get Chicago's first mobile food preparers off the ground.

"But we asked for this. I don't want to complain about what the city's making us do, because we knew what it was going in. We're just keeping our head high and biting our tongue," he said.

On the city's part, officials want to see "a thriving food truck industry that also maintains important health and safety standards that are in place to protect the public," said Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. 

She said there are two shared kitchens capable of meeting commissary needs for food trucks, but those sites don't exclusively handle mobile food preparers.

"Our doors are always open to individual operators to help them through the process of starting a business and help get new trucks moving," she added.

Salls said he hopes to open both The Garage and his commissary within the next few months — and to get his truck on the road even sooner.

And though he dreams of filling his commissary with his six of his own food trucks featuring different culinary themes, for now he's keeping the business plan simple — and he's definitely sticking with salsa.

"Sure, I'm a white, Jewish guy trying to tackle Mexican food," Salls admitted, "But it worked out OK for Rick Bayless."

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