The first of the food trucks
An enterprising cook navigates the city's streets-and its restrictive regulations-to deliver food with soul.
“I don’t know if some of them are dudes or ladies or dudes that just look like ladies. But I do know that they love my rib tips.”
That’s Troy Marcus Johnson, doing what he does best, working the stations as a one-man brigade inside his food truck, Chicago All Fired Up. This full-fledged kitchen on wheels cruises to various spots around town six days a week, and tonight, close to 2am on a Tuesday when most of you are nestled in your beds, Johnson is parked in front of Green Dolphin Street, luring the sloshed and sassy with his juicy spiced shrimp, crispy chicken wings and, yes, those applewood-smoked rib tips. Monday nights are host to this club’s legendary Boom Boom Room, where Lycra and lipstick know no gender and color lines are as blurred as most partygoers’ vision. “I’m old-school Chicago, so I follow the house-music crowd,” Johnson says. “The people are more in my age group. Me and kids don’t do too good, mainly because I can’t be disrespected. I tried going to Lumen and this kid was swinging off the truck trying to show off for some girl and I’m like, ‘C’mon guy. I’m out here trying to get this money. So show some respect.’”
At 45 with a wife and two kids, getting that money is the motivator. But how Johnson goes about it is what truly sets him apart. Last April, Chicago All Fired Up launched as the city’s only true food truck, right in line with the trend sweeping the nation.
But what about Chicago’s trucks in Humboldt Park? Or the handful of lunch wagons that pop up downtown? Those are more rolling heat lamps than food trucks, but they’re all that has been legally allowed under Chicago’s strict regulations. The way the books read, a truck owner has to prepare its food in a licensed facility, package that food, load it onto a truck, and either keep it warm or cold until it’s sold. What Johnson is doing with Chicago All Fired Up is cooking food to order inside his rig, a massive retired fire truck outfitted with everything a licensed restaurant would have: a three-compartment sink with fresh water, a range, hood exhaust, fryer, refrigerator and freezer. How he got this beast street legal could be chalked up to dumb luck, but Johnson prefers to call it a blessing. “Last year after I built the truck, a health inspector came out to Miss Minnie’s, the restaurant I bought in 2005, for a routine inspection and saw the truck and asked what it was,” Johnson explains. “I showed it to her and she didn’t know how to inspect it, so she called her supervisor who told her to inspect it just like a restaurant. So I passed the health inspection and had my certificate of sanitation, and she told me to take that to the city and pay $285 for a mobile-food-vendor license. That was it.”
Sounds simple, right? But when asked about the legitimacy of this process and if it would be that easy for other would-be truck owners to do what Johnson is doing, Efrat Stein, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Licensing, refused to comment about Johnson’s particular case or how he was apparently able to sidestep the red tape. “I will say though, on the record, that the way the municipal code stands, no mobile food vendor should be preparing food on-site,” Stein says. Regardless, the health inspector who gave Chicago All Fired Up the green light licensed the truck as a restaurant, and Johnson plans to continue operating it that way. Aside from his regular Monday night/Tuesday morning stop at Green Dolphin (2200 N Ashland Ave), Johnson’s schedule takes him to Reynold’s Lounge (938 E 75th St) on Tuesdays, Vision Nightclub (632 N Dearborn St) on Thursdays, various South Side parties on weekend nights (“depending on who the DJ is”) and one-off events during the day, from a police auction a few Saturdays ago to the Best Buy parking lot at 87th and the Dan Ryan. You can keep up via Facebook, but thanks to Johnson’s perseverance navigating the Chicago Park District concessions process, he’s nabbed a summer license for the 63rd Street Beach; starting this month you’ll find All Fired Up parked in the lot at 63rd from around lunchtime to 7pm every day except Sunday.
Johnson’s food truck journey started with turkeys. “I cooked in the Marine Corps for six years before I got out in ’86, but when you cook for thousands of people daily, especially in the service, you never really want to do it again. So I got into computers and telecom and engineering, and then Bush got into office and a lot of people, including myself, got laid off. So I had to go back to something I know.”
What he knew was food, and what he had was people skills. He bought an old Butternut bread truck for $500, installed deep fryers and hitched up a custom-built 250-gallon grill to the back of the truck. Around Thanksgiving, he made the rounds to barber shops and beauty parlors throughout the Southeast Side, taking deposits for fried and smoked turkeys; his girlfriend at the time did the same with sweet-potato pies, and eventually the business grew into a year-round community staple. “But then my truck got stolen in 2005,” Johnson explains. “I was trying to decide what to do next and along came the opportunity to take over Miss Minnie’s.”
Johnson bought the business, complete with Minnie’s shrimp recipe. But he inherited all her problems along with it: building issues, landlord worries—"all kinds of stuff," he says. So in March of 2009, Johnson bought a retired fire truck from the Cicero Fire Department and used his electrical and plumbing skills to build it out.
The mobile kitchen is impressive, but Green Dolphin’s clubgoers are more concerned with what’s coming out of the truck. Catfish and salmon get a crunchy cornmeal coating; shrimp, true to Miss Minnie’s tradition, takes only a light dusting of seasoned flour before they’re flash-fried; chicken wings get “fried hard,” resulting in cracker-crisp crust and perfectly juicy meat. And that massive grill (the same that kick-started Johnson’s turkey business) is attached to the back of the truck via a trailer hitch, loaded with applewood and lump charcoal that smoke rib tips for four hours after the meat soaks in Johnson’s grandfather’s marinade.
Outside the club, ladies—and indeed, “dudes who look like ladies”— teeter across the street in stilettos, making a beeline for All Fired Up. As the line steadily grows, Johnson’s fryers kick into overtime, and the hungry crowd tears into the hot food with their hands. “I don’t want to be 50 or 60 and saying ‘If your Daddy would have built that truck idea, your life would have been better,’” Johnson says. “There’s no talking about coulda shoulda woulda. I just gotta do it.”
Heather Shouse’s book Food Trucks: America’s Best Kitchens on Wheels will be published in spring 2011 by Ten Speed Press.