The Rise and Fall of Meatyballs

This post began as a take on the food truck movement as a whole, then segued into a breakdown of my business and personal strengths and shortcomings. Though I’ve probably written the better part of a novel trying to sort it all out, most of it is emotionally laden and needs serious editing time and may simply be too raw for me to ever put out for public viewing. Though this post is humbling at best, I figured that this site has been the vehicle to convey some of my happier moments and successes, and it would be somewhat hypocritical of me not to use it to relay my some of my sadness and failures. As such, I stand before you:
The movement to reform food truck legislation is at a standstill at best, and I have serious doubts as to whether anything will ever get done. In February of 2010, I had a meeting at City Hall with several aldermen and the Commissioner of Business Affairs to propose the reasons why changing the food truck laws made sense. At the time, I was the chef of a fine dining restaurant (Lockwood) inside a large corporate hotel (The Palmer House Hilton) and coming off a suspension for a facebook post. The idea of Meatyballs was already built, but created as a casual dining restaurant venture. Once I was suspended, I knew that I would either have to put my tail between my legs and conform, or the end was near. I first looked into the prospect of opening a truck as a backup plan for the time I assumed I would be fired. Lower capital was needed to start up. I went to City Hall to get some details while on suspension and learned one can’t cook on a truck, vend late night, and has to remain 200 feet away from any food establishment… even a 7-11. I felt it was a movement and reform worth sinking my teeth into. True to prophecy, in August of that year I was dismissed from my position for having a big mouth. By this time legislation had been drafted and there was already a truck or two rolling under the current confines. As destiny had it, a licensed kitchen fell into my lap at the same time as an opportunity came along to rent a beat up, construction site style food truck. Within two weeks of being dismissed, I was on the streets and in business for myself with a concept I would later call The Meatyballs Mobile.
Through Twitter and Facebook, long lines awaited my arrival as I would jump from location to location during lunch hours in the downtown Chicago area. Business was going well, but this was no open and shut game as winter was looming and the model is obviously heavily reliant on Mother Nature’s whims. Instead of backing down, we expanded to two trucks in January, and found what I believed to be one of the only locations in the city that fell outside the 200 foot rule and was still conducive to good foot traffic. So one truck was stationed there every day, and the second floated around town. The second driver worked off a minimum take and a percentage of his sales.
Days were full and uncertain, but certainly new and exciting: I would wake up at 4am, drive to the city with Keni following in her car (babysitter got the girls off for daycare), secure the parking space on Dearborn and Monroe by 5am, feed the meter for the maximum allowable time, drive back to ‘The Ball Cave’ together, and the two of us would join up with former Kuma’s Korner cook and our resident Rastafarian, skateboarding, tattooed, bulimic, pot smoking (settled his stomach), do-it-all handyman Sigi Fredo who would have hot drinks waiting for us. We knocked out sandwiches with the fervor and efficiency of machines, each challenging the other to work the fastest. The sound of the sides of our hands slapping down the aluminum wrapping on the stainless steel table co-mingled with the I-pod to fuel our flow. The resulting ‘torpedoes’ (called such because they destroy subs) were filled with our ‘Globes of Goodness’ and were laden with condiments and generous amounts of sauce (who doesn’t like their balls covered in sauce?). Our Mb2 (second truck) driver would bag up chips and chocolate salty balls and fire up the propane tank at 8am each day. By 9am, the sandwiches would be fired off and loaded onto the truck. We’d pull out of The Cave by 9:45 and rush back to the parking space by 10am (when the meter was set to expire) and swap out the car for the truck. Generally there was an hour to kill before lunch, so I’d make change for my bank and either pass out fliers, or chill out in the Chase Building with a cup of coffee and catch up on emails. At 11 it was time to start harassing passersby with the traditional ‘Ball Calls’. These included: “Our mission statement is to get our balls into the mouths of every Chicagoan” or, “Life’s short, so have Meatyballs.” Instead of offering your order in a bag, we offered them in ‘ball sacks.’ We started making white chocolate salty balls too… they were anatomically correct, so the dark were just a little larger. Size may or may not matter, but we sold a lot more of the dark. Oddly, those who tried the dark never went back to the white ;) … Summarizing it as a whole, I believe that if I have my mental faculties and breath when I grow old, I will look back and see that the experience of being face to face with our hungry constituents were some of the most fun and rewarding times of my career. The aspect of making unsuspecting and even stoic people smile or laugh was priceless. As those who know me best can attest to, I was a comedian at heart long before I was a chef. It’s the Josh in me.
I also believed in the offerings and it had my full on attention. After swapping vehicles, Keni headed back to the kitchen and took care of the office and any more of the preparations and cleaning she could do before leaving to pick up our girls from school for the day. I’d return to the kitchen around 1:30, eat something if there was anything left over, head out to get supplies for the next day’s service if needed, and cash out. The goal was to get home by dinner to see the girls, but there were plenty of times this didn’t happen. At home, emails usually got out of control and it was always hard shutting off work. There were nights I would do a dinner run to see if there was any chance of opening another revenue source. The toll was not worth the payout. Our conversations at home were too frequently about work. There were also plenty of nights that she, I, or both of us would go to work after the girls went to sleep and go all the way through the night getting ready for the next day. There were times I had to pull off the expressway on the way home the following day to take a power nap in a random parking lot before I fell asleep in the car and killed myself or others.
Also unknown to many was another avenue I went down (six figure salaries and health benefits are tough to replace!) – You may have heard of the Tamale Guys? They’re somewhat of a Chicago institution. They travel to bars that don’t serve food and sell their tamales loaded in coolers to hungry and drunk patrons. At the time I was completely unaware of their business. I named myself the Meatyball Man, and on Friday and/or Saturday, I’d hit the streets from midnight until 4am and bounce from bar to bar with the truck and balls in tow. Of all the aspects to the current laws, the prohibition against late night street vending is the most asinine. Is it better for drunks to get in their cars and drive straight home or chill out for a bit with some grub? Hmmm… can anyone make a good case against this? Anyhow, as taxing as this was on me physically, emotionally it was harder. Going from fine dining cuisine to selling sliders in bars was stark in contrast. And as cool and appreciative as most people were, it is amazing how many drunk douche bags are out and about after hours. I made a rule not to frequent what I named ‘douche bag bars’. They still always seemed to find me.
People very frequently ask for advice on opening a food truck. Here’s the best that I can give: It has to be an absolute and unconditional labor of love. And that may only give you a marginal chance of success. Years back while living the single life on Maui I developed a little gambling problem. I would almost recommend this or day trading as a safer place to put your money. Bottom line is that it’s a crap shoot and a helluva lotta work on top of it. I’ve been doing this long enough to be able to maintain the back of the house side of it, and Keni is an organizational machine who built our business model from a viability standpoint… not to mention the creator of our Schweddy Balls, Chocolate Salty Balls, and some pretty racy videos. Owning a business was fun and with rewards to be sure, but was not without a definite and steep price. Though there were certainly many other factors at play beyond, Keni and I have separated.
Business was still moving forward. We were up to a team of four and we made the decision to buy our first truck. This increased our team to six employees, and I still recall pausing one afternoon as I was shutting down for the day and getting shivers when I realized this little hack of a start-up was becoming a legitimate business operation.
Then like a bolt of lightening came the next venture, EL Ideas. By this time I was over the whole ball routine. The clincher was driving home one day and thinking about nothing but ball jokes and new obnoxiously named creations. I felt like John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. You know the scene when he goes into his own portal and says nothing but “Malkovich” in a hundred different ways? Only difference was that I was saying, “Balls.” EL saved me. The return to my culinary roots in a fine dining restaurant to launch in the unlikely setting of our commissary kitchen on 14th and Western was an epiphany. Now I wonder what took so long for it to hit me. We opened in the beginning of July and my focus turned primarily to this. We hired more people to make up for my absence from the streets.
Though I knew from the start that it would happen eventually, ironically as soon as I left the streets the food truck climate changed drastically. Where in March there were only a small handful of trucks, all of a sudden there were in the neighborhood of thirty with the warmer weather at hand. Now to capture the parking spot on Dearborn and Monroe (the bread and butter of the business), the space needed to be secured the night before and parking prices tripled. Other trucks took over the rest of the block until the authorities were called and those nasty blue tickets were issued. Our Twitter and Facebook following was also diluted with so many new options in our customer base’s feeds. All of a sudden, we weren’t the new kids on the block anymore. Our crumbling marriage was extremely taxing on Keni and I, our children, and our team as well. Little by little our sales were going down and what could we do with the pre-made sandwiches once they came back to the kitchen? Food costs and labor costs started to go up exponentially. Hot and humid days were also an issue. Emotions were out of control. I needed to redefine my role as a father to my two young girls. We launched the restaurant. It was going very well, but I was at my wits end on many levels and didn’t have the resources – or even time – to speak with a professional to work any of it out.
The biggest problem I learned with small start ups – we started the food truck business only on our meager retirement & children’s savings – is that when a tumultuous time comes, there is little room to weather a storm. The restaurant was going better than I hoped, but at only 12 seats it wasn’t designed – nor expected – to support the business as a whole, only to be a nice little stipend. Suddenly our payroll came due in September and we didn’t have the funds to cover it on time. Now it was time to cut in as knee jerk of a fashion as the business was built in the first place. Luckily, renting the trucks like I did they were very easy to get off of the books. The culinary team was also let go, and I dug my teeth back into the daily production. I also took a couple of shifts back driving the only truck that remained. Between this and the restaurant, I was now working 18-20 hours a day and was would too frequently fall asleep on the computer desk after service. Being back on the streets, I saw the change in the climate as a whole and felt disconnected. Arriving to a location and having a crowd waiting is one of the greatest rushes around. But there are also times when it is lonely… I like associating it to fishing: when the fish are hitting it’s great, but when they aren’t it’s more like one is standing around like an asshole waiting for something to happen… only in this case you have your money on the hook. All of this extra effort was like a band aid on a bullet hole. I was burning out and emotionally spent. Everything in my life – except for the mutual love for my children (which at first I was truly worried about) and the wonderful response to the restaurant – was completely out of control.
Finally I began speaking with a long time fan of my cuisine about injecting some needed capital to get us caught up and help make EL a financially viable model. We are slated and already have increased our seating, but fully plan on protecting the integrity of what we have. What I have learned from the Meatyball experience is that knee jerk growth is a crap shoot. On the one hand, if I had not grown to three trucks so quickly there is no way that the owning the restaurant of my dreams would ever have materialized. On the other hand, not properly nurturing this growth almost buried the business as a whole. I will not make this mistake again (but surely others!). What made Meatyballs a success was the signature touch that was lost when I focused on EL. What makes EL special – aside from the cuisine of Andrew, our apprentice Michael Destefano, and myself – is the intimacy of the experience as a whole. It has the feeling as though you are in our home, and we are just there to make you dinner. Our dining room manager Bill Talbott – whose pedigree is jaw dropping – is also a key figure in this. Dina Lee is holding it together from behind the scenes. I have some great people behind me and they have all made great contributions to pointing this unique business model in the right direction. Nobody is shy about setting me straight anytime they feel that my ideas might sacrifice this ideal. I need to listen more. I need to communicate better. I have a lot riding on it. I am confident I will. More to come on my thoughts on the food truck movement as a whole – which I thought was where this was going to go. But I’m big on full disclosure. So there it is.
If you’d like to read more and see the latest with where we are going with EL, please see this article by Mike Sula in today’s Chicago Reader.
Also, if anyone is interested in making a go of the Meatyballs concept as a restaurant or elsewhere, please reach out to me at phillip@elideas.com

7 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of Meatyballs”

  1. John C says:

    Just read your post. It was very interesting and insightful. As a meatyballs customer downtown, you are missed. Would love to try the restaurant some time.

  2. Thanks for sharing your very personal, powerful, beautifully-written story. Here’s to you, your family, and your future! Can’t wait to see what happens next for you — I’ll be rooting for you, as always.

    –Shawna

  3. Matt Kuzma says:

    I’ve had the great (and totally different) pleasures of eating a crab cake torpedo and being a guest at El Ideas. Thank you for sharing your creations!

  4. Mike Summer says:

    I have enjoyed meatballs on several occasions and will miss having them. However, I have had the pleasure if dining at El a couple times. It is one of the best restaurant experiences I have ever had and I know it will only become better with your full devotion. I look forward to being a guest there again. Best of luck!

  5. Chef,

    As usual, this is a beautifully written, wizened yet hopeful and still heartbreaking post. Homey and I are eternal fans of you and your talent. We’re sending happy vibes to you always.

    Best,

    Parissa

  6. Super says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Actually rarely do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Your concept is outstanding; the difficulty is something that not sufficient individuals are talking intelligently about. I am very comfortable that I stumbled throughout this in my search for one thing referring to this.

  7. [...] in Chicago, where city ordinances are incredibly unfriendly towards them. Chef Foss wrote an excellent blog post describing what it was like running the Meatyballs Mobile, and why he ultimately scrapped the idea [...]

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